WILDFIRE: Federal officials brace for fire season

WILDFIRE: Federal officials brace for fire season

26 April 2012

published by www.pe.com

USA — Firefighting officials hope the weather cooperates as they head into the summer with fewer water planes

WASHINGTON — Faced with a shortage of federal air tankers, top Obama administration officials said Thursday that agency cooperation and judicious use of firefighting weapons will be vital in countering a wildfire season with the potential to be particularly severe in Inland Southern California’s mountains and foothills.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said federal officials are taking the upcoming fire season seriously but are confident that they’re ready to beat back flames — despite the diminished number of large firefighting air tankers.

The Forest Service fleet as shrunk from 44 to 11 in recent years; many of the aging aircraft had to be retired due to airworthiness concerns.

While they seek to acquire more, federal officials will have to rely more heavily on eight large aircraft operated by the National Guard and make efficient use of the remaining tankers in the fleet.

“We’re pre-positioning those assets and we’re developing coordinated plans with our sister agencies,” Vilsack said. “Most importantly of all, we’ve got 15,000 trained, brave firefighters on call, ready to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our lives and our property.”

Neither he nor Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell elaborated on where resources would be pre-positioned. But they said close attention would be paid to forecasters, who are using evolving weather data in an attempt to predict where this year’s fire season will hit the hardest.

Ed Delgado, who manages the predictive services program for the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, said the Inland area’s mountains and foothills and places where homes are near forestland appear to be at the greatest risk of a severe season.

“As far as Southern California, we are focusing on the higher elevations,” he said, adding that the snow-pack that keeps vegetation from drying out is well below normal.

But the forecast is far from definitive, since the traditional high point of the region’s fire season is still several months away and conditions are in flux.

Forecasters are monitoring temperatures in the equatorial Pacific to try to predict changes in weather behavior across the Northwest. Specifically, they’re watching for a shift from a La Niña pattern, which has been present for the past 18 months and generally brings dry conditions to the southern United States, to El Niño pattern, which could yield wetter conditions in the region.

Even if that shift occurs, any resulting change in fire behavior is uncertain and would depend largely on timing.

“Typically, Southern California’s fire season is late summer into the fall,” Delgado said. “So if you get a lot of the fuel at the beginning and it dries out, you could have a bigger fire season. Or if that rainy season comes later in the year, it could slow down or even totally eliminate your typical fire season.”

Apart from the large air tanker situation, Tidwell and Vilsack said the federal government is well prepared to attack fires wherever they break out. About 300 firefighting helicopters are under contract and on call to assist as needed, along with 900 engine trucks around the country.

Officials hope to make do with those tools, as they work to build up the aerial firefighting fleet in the next few years. The Forest Service has issued a request for proposals to companies that could provide air tankers under contract. Tidwell said three of those could be brought into service this year.

An additional 10 could be brought on line next year, he said.

Vilsack stressed that 98 percent of the thousands of wildfires that break out each year on federal lands are snuffed out in their early stages, and that officials mean to keep that rate up in the warm, dry months ahead.

“We are hopeful that we will get through this fire season in good shape, without fatalities and without a great deal of property loss,” he said.

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