USA — Mounting concerns over the nation’s beleaguered aerial firefighting fleet are exposing tensions between state and federal agencies tasked to work together to counter the nation’s worsening fire seasons.
The U.S. Forest Service’s fleet of air tankers, vital to battling blazes along Inland Southern California’s rugged mountainsides, has shrunk from 44 to 11 in recent years, as many of the aging aircraft had to be retired due to airworthiness concerns.
The agency in February issued a plan to build up a fleet of 18 to 28 tankers. But lawmakers and state fire officials have roundly criticized the plan, originally scheduled to be complete in January of 2011, as long overdue, short on details and generally insufficient.
Meanwhile, the depleted fleet of federal tankers threatens to undermine cooperative agreements through which the Forest Service and Cal Fire share resources to battle fires in areas of both state and federal responsibility.
“I am concerned that during periods of multiple large fires in other regions, California will be left with an insufficient number of federal aircraft to meet the normal initial and extended attack workload,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott wrote earlier this month in a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Unless there are a sufficient number of federal air tankers, Cal Fire cannot continue to support extended attack fires on federal lands without adversely affecting our aviation program.”
Pimlott, whose agency has 23 smaller tankers at its disposal and has maintained the fleet’s size despite budget cuts, met Friday in Washington with Forest Service Director of Fire and Aviation Tom Harbour.
“I assured Chief Pimlott that we’ve got no intention of adversely impacting Cal Fire’s ability to deal with their responsibility,” Harbour said after the meeting, adding that the agency would pay special attention to fire-prone communities in the West. “Southern California, the more populated areas – we’re going to jump on those fires hard and strong.”
Harbour stressed that interagency communication would be of paramount importance, given the diminished resources. He also said the Forest Service would rely on 30 large firefighting helicopters and roughly 90 smaller ones under contract with the agency.
The Forest Service also has access to a pair of smaller CL 215 firefighting planes known as “Scoopers,” which are able to drop hundreds of gallons of water at a time on flames in remote areas, and a Victorville-based DC-10 jumbo jet-turned-air tanker.
When all resources are exhausted, the agency can also call for help from the Pentagon. The Air National Guard operates C-130 cargo planes outfitted with dispersal units that can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant per load. There are eight units based around the country, including two in the Channel Islands.
The Forest Service’s Tidwell said during a hearing this month on Capitol Hill that he expects to rely on those aircraft more this year. But he said the Pentagon has made it clear that it is not interested in expanding its firefighting mission.
“The Air National Guard is available whenever the U.S. Forest Service requests our support,” Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for the National Guard Bureau, said in response to Tidwell’s remarks. “We have responded to every request for assistance from the (Forest Service) since we started the mission in the early 1970s.”
The Defense Department support was designed as a last resort, but it has become commonplace as the Forest Service’s resources have dwindled and fire seasons have become progressively more severe. Last year’s season, while relatively tame in the Inland area, was among the worst in the last five decades nationally. The top five fire seasons in terms of acres burned have occurred since 1998.
Faced with outdated planes, the Forest Service has set out to modernize its fleet, but the process has been hampered by delays. The 12-page plan issued last month acknowledges a need for more tankers, but it remains unclear how soon they will be available to the Forest Service. The agency’s budget request includes $24 million for the effort in the next fiscal year, a fraction of what adding the necessary aircraft would cost.
In his letter to Tidwell, Pimlott said the 18 to 28 aircraft sought by the Forest Service would be “insufficient to meet the needs of the combined federal, state and local firefighting missions.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been critical of the Forest Service’s handling of the situation, said she agreed with Pimlott that the Forest Service’s plan falls short.
“Millions of Californians work and live in high-fire threat areas, and a failure to address this issue jeopardizes lives and property,” said Feinstein, D-Calif. “Chief Tidwell admits the Forest Service lacks aviation assets to meet the wildfire response need, yet he has not requested sufficient funds to make the acquisitions, nor has he provided Congress with a timetable.”
Harbour maintained that the Forest Service is actively pursuing new contracts with tanker vendors and said he hoped to bring as many as eight into operation over the next two years, with two or three going into service this year. He acknowledged that the shortage could strain resources in the coming fire season.
“I worry about it, but that’s why 900 engines and 11 air tankers and 120 helicopters and eight (Defense Department) aircraft make me sleep a little bit better at night,” he said. “I worry about it, but we plan and prepare to deal with it.”