When The Gazettes editorial board has dared criticize the federal response to putting out the Waldo Canyon Fire, which began and burned mostly on federal property, critics have called us every name in the book. We politicize tragedy, some charge. Other have said our position is skewed by a deranged opposition to President Barack Obama and other Democrats in Washington.
Fortunately, our states two fine Democratic senators also think federal government should take responsibility for preventing, mitigating and extinguishing fires on federal lands before they threaten lives and destroy adjacent properties.
Our timing was poor when we first criticized Obama for his 2011 decision to reduce the size of the U.S. Forest Service aerial firefighting fleet by 40 percent. The editorial was written when Waldo was merely a potential disaster, but the fire began devouring Colorado Springs homes about the same moment the article went public. Today, more than four months after the fire lit up west-side neighborhoods of our city, we must discuss this tragedy openly and honestly. No one should go through this again.
One reason forest fires do so much damage is the governments lack of responsibility for properly managing and thinning forests. Another is inadequate firefighting capabilities.
Listen to Sen. Michael Bennet, a respected Democrat and ally of President Obama. Heres what he wrote on Nov. 2 to senators Jack Reed and Lisa Murkowski, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Forest Services appropriations.
The wildfires that raged for much of this past summer are a powerful reminder that the Forest Services current available airborne assets are largely inadequate to meet our expected fire fighting needs over the coming years, says a passage from Bennets letter. The recent wildfires could have been even more destructive if the U.S. Forest Service had not requested activation of 100% of the Department of Defenses fire fighting air tankers, and solicited additional international support from Canada. Multiple studies by the federal government land management agencies over the past decade have looked at this problem, and concluded that the current aerial tanker fleet is too old. The average aircraft was produced more than 50 years ago. The number of available aircraft is declining swiftly due to accidents and attrition. While 44 large aerial tankers were available as recently as 2002, fewer than 10 are flight-ready today, and the number is expected to continue to decline. Simply put, the Secretary of Agriculture needs flexibility and options to reconstitute a viable and effective fleet to protect the nation.
Amen. Sens. Bennet and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have insisted on a federal study of the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires to, in part, mitigate the impact of future blazes.
Keep it up, senators. The Forest Service does a lot of good in this country, and most Americans appreciate our federal lands. But if the federal government is to own and manage 193 million acres of grass and trees, it should be ready, able and properly equipped to do a much better job preventing and managing fires on those properties. The toll of federal fires this year is unacceptable, and it is time to do things differently.