Though recent rains and wet weather make it difficult for most to worry about wildland fire season, it is on the mind of Governor Janet Napolitano.
With many large fires sweeping through Arizona forests last summer, including the Nuttall Fire Complex on Mount Graham, Napoli-tano wants to make a preemptive strike to stop such fires from occuring this summer. The governor has been actively writing letters and making phone calls to the United Forest Service and Arizona congressmen to ensure that as many airworthy tankers as possible are released before the state is in the middle of a fiery disaster.
Napolitano is calling on Arizona’s congressional delegation to pressure Washing-ton into assessing whether air tankers used for firefighting will be ready to fly this summer. The federal government last year waited until the month of May before notifying states that large air tankers were not airworthy, weeks after Arizona’s fire season had already begun. The tankers are considered to be some of the most effective pieces of equipment for fighting forest fires.
“The tankers have proven to be useful in fighting fires,” Napolitano said. “When we were ultimately able to bring a tanker in to help fight the Willow fire, it kept it from uniting with another fire. If those two had come together, we could have lost double the acreage we did.”
The governor’s letter is a follow-up to one written to Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman in September 2004 in which Napolitano asked that the states be included in planning for the 2005 season so they can properly allocate their resources. The Forest Service, a branch of the Agriculture Department, has yet to assess how many tankers it will have available for the summer and may not know until sometime in the spring.
“[This] puts Arizona in a difficult situation as we head into wildland fire season. The rains and snows this winter do not eliminate the potential for another severe wildland fire season, and we must make sure Arizona is prepared to react and respond,” Napolitano wrote.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was canceling contracts for all 33 of the large airtankers used in fighting fires across the West without telling the states or providing a backup plan. Because the contracts were cancelled in May, well after fire season had already begun in Arizona, the state was left scrambling to find other methods of fighting fires for the remainder of the season.
Much of the governor’s concern centers around the fact that Arizona’s fire season starts much earlier than the rest of the country.
“The Forest Service has not been responsive in coordinating firefighting services within the state or the needs of the state,” Napolitano said. “The Forest Service needs to determine how many tankers are going to be airworthy. It’s already February, and the lack of activity on their part is disturbing.”
Napolitano’s letters also ask congressional members to urge the federal government to share draft plans and include the states in further fire planning.
The Courier was unable to reach the Forest Service for comment by press time.