USA — While local firefighters have flooded in to help battle the Galena Fire, theres little chance the large airplanes and helicopters that helped control last summers High Park Fire will join the fight.
Why? Because the vast majority of those air tankers and choppers are privately owned and havent yet been officially hired for the season. A single private helicopter based in Fort Collins is expected to join the fight later Saturday.
The lack of aerial firefighting resources is raising questions from residents like Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson, who lives in Stout and is on pre-evacuation notice. Air tankers and helicopters are generally not used to directly attack a fire, but are more commonly used to protect specific areas, such as homes like those under threat from the south-moving Galena Fire.
I also think we at all levels of government need to take a good look at what firefighting resources are available and when, Johnson said Saturday morning. A one-day delay in air resources is simply not acceptable.
Nationally, wildfire preparedness is at Level 1 on a scale of 1-5, meaning few significant resources are available. The closest heavy air tanker, Galena Fire officials say, is in Montana. Most federal-level firefighting crews are actually seasonal employees, and they havent been hired yet for the season. And delays in hiring out most air tankers have led U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to criticize a contracting process has said was already delaying deployment of tankers.
Its like going to war without air cover, Udall told the Coloradoan. Thats not acceptable. Its not a way to fight a war, and its not a way to fight forest fires.
In a Saturday morning briefing, incident commanders noted that March fires happen in Larimer County and said this is exactly the kind of thing they prepare and train for. And they said high winds on Friday might have hampered aerial efforts anyway.
But Johnson said he thinks firefighters should have at least been able to call on more aircraft.
I know it was windy yesterday but late in the afternoon it got very calm and a helicopter could have done a lot of good, he said. A few years ago we had a grass fire at Horsetooth Reservoir, a helicopter was here with a water bucket within 30 minutes and had the fire out within a half an hour. Obviously this fire and weather conditions were different yesterday but we need to have the most rapid response available for what we know its going to be a bad year.
Udall has championed greater use of firefighting aircraft, and President Barack Obama last year signed a law giving the Forest Service authority to hire seven new large air tankers. But the contract for those planes has been contested by the losing bidders, prompting Udall to plead with the companies to set aside their complaints in the national interest.
If contractors continue to challenge agency decisions, I will urge the Forest Service to use its emergency authorities to override the challenges and finalize the tanker contracts as soon as possible. Colorado cannot wait, Udall said last month.