USA — Delays on a federal proposal to add night-flying aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting fleet are “unacceptable” and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should push for more timely studies, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a bluntly worded letter this week.
It’s been more than a year since U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell promised in a congressional hearing that his agency would study whether it was cost-efficient and safe to use helicopters after nightfall to fight wildfires.
Doing so might have stopped the spread of 2009’s Station fire during its first day, preventing the destruction of 200 canyon homes, the blackening of 250 square miles of watershed in the Angeles National Forest and the deaths of two firefighters, several former U.S. Forest officials told The Times for a series of articles.
Three studies needed to make the recommendation were supposed to be completed in January. They have been delayed by a Forest Service decision to also look into potential cost and safety factors associated with night missions, Tom Harbour, the forest service’s head of fire and aviation, told foothill residents at a recent meeting.
A new nighttime firefighting strategy is now set to be released in August, Vilsack told Feinstein in a recent letter. Feinstein’s May 17 response, made public Friday, made clear her irritation with the postponement.
“Such delays are unacceptable when homes and lives are at risk,” she wrote.
Attempts to reach Vilsack’s office late Friday were not successful. But Harbour, in his recent meeting with the community, said federal officials are aware that residents are eagerly awaiting a revamped strategy.
“I got the message,” Harbour told the April 28 gathering in Altadena. People “want us to move faster.”
In addition to nighttime firefighting, federal officials are considering new protocols for how many air tankers and helicopters to call in during the crucial initial hours of a forest fire.
The Station fire was nearly extinguished on the first day but gathered strength overnight. Air tankers ordered for 7 a.m. the next day did not arrive until about two hours later, after the flames had jumped Angeles Crest Highway and begun to rage out of control.
Feinstein said the Forest Service studies are a critical step in asking for congressional funding of new aircraft. Though fire season is year-round in California, the highest-risk months are in the summer and fall.