Bennet highlights need for upgraded fire-fighting tanker fleet

Bennet highlights need for upgraded fire-fighting tanker fleet

09 November 2012

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USA– With six weeks left of the Congressional session, demands for improvement in wildfire prevention tactics continue to grow, if only by one more senatorial request.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet recently sent a letter to fellow Senators Jack Reed and Lisa Murkowski asking that they craft a bill for 2013 that would modernize the U.S. Forest Service’s antiquated fleet of air tankers. In the letter, Bennet referenced Colorado’s record-breaking wildfire season, and how multiple fires strained resources, in particular the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires, “two of the most destructive wildfires in the history of the western United States.”

“The recent wildfires could have been even more destructive if the U.S. Forest Service had not requested activation of 100 percent of the Department of Defense’s fire fighting air tankers, and solicited additional international support from Canada,” Bennet wrote in the letter.

Reed and Murkowski chair the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, the committee that oversees the forest service’s funds.

This is not the first time that attention has been drawn to the out-dated air tanker fleet, nor is it the first time that a process to get updated aircraft has been intiated. On June 13, the forest service was awarded a contract for seven modern aircraft, three of which it began using to fight wildfires this year, four of which are expected to arrive next year. The Waldo Canyon fire started on June 23, the High Park on June 9.

While aspects of that bill are in the pipeline, Bennet suggested that money for more air tankers be added to the service’s budget for next year, said Kristin Lynch, and spokeswoman for the senator. In the meantime, the appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013, which would fund the aircraft, is behind schedule in Congress where it was set to pass before October. Instead, it could likely be passed in the lame-duck session or in early winter, Lynch said in an email.

“We’re hoping the FY2013 appropriations bill, which could pass this winter, will include new air tankers. The bottom line is that the Forest Service needs a modern fleet adequate to meet the rising threat these fires pose,” Bennet wrote in an email.

In the meantime, fire seasons are growing longer and requiring more resources. Two of Colorado’s most devastating fires, the High Park and the Waldo Canyon, started in June, what is typically considered unusually early in the season for such large-scale fires. The latest wildfire in Colorado, the Wetmore fire, started in October and burned 12 homes; the Fern Lake fire in Rocky Mountain National Park, which start Oct. 9, continues to smolder.

This summer, the department of defense provided some of the aircraft to help suppress fires, an action that, according an 80-year-old law, is only allowed after all national and local resources have been tapped. The law, known as the Economy Act of 1932, has garned scrutiny from local officials as well as democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who said this summer that the law warrants reconsideration. Bennet agrees that “all options for solving this issue are worthy of consideration,” Lynch wrote in an email.

Udall also led an after-action discussion with local military and forest service leaders in early August to discuss the use of air tankers during the Waldo Canyon fire. The group decided that all necessary air support was available when and where it was needed.



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