U.S. Senate fast-tracks bill to help Forest Service lease more large air tankers if the season heats up
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY —In what could be one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent memory, the U.S. Senate this week fast-tracked a bill that would authorized the U.S. Forest Service to sign contracts for at least seven large air tankers for emergency wildfire suppression operations.
Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who has been at the forefront of addressing wildfire issues, said he was pleased with bipartisan support for the measure.
“This effort underlines that the federal government can act quickly in emergencies. I hope the House follows suit and gets this legislation to the president’s desk. Western firefighters who are working in the midst of a severe regional drought do not have the luxury of waiting long for the federal government to work.”
Despite a few mid-sized fires in Colorado and a large blaze in New Mexico, this year’s wildfire season so far is well below last year’s and well below the 10-year average.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires have burned across about 838,000 acres to-date in 2012. The smallest total since the 2004 and 2005 fire seasons. Last year, fires had already burned across more than 3 million acres by this time, largely due to the widespread fires in Texas. The 10-year average is 1.42 million acress.
Udall’s comments came after the Senate unanimously approved the bill, S.3261, which Udall co-sponsored.
The Senate’s action today follows the Senate’s decision yesterday to fast-track the legislation. It also follows an April letter Udall wrote to the U.S. Forest Service voicing his concerns over the state of the U.S. Forest Service’s aging air tanker fleet.
In his April letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Udall said he’s not sure the agency’s air tanker fleet is is capable of keeping Coloradans safe in a timely and effective manner. He stressed the importance of having a reliable fleet to adequately address wildfire threats across the state and country.
“Though air tankers are only one part of the wildfire-response effort, they play a critical role in the initial attack. With an aging fleet that has dwindled from 44 air tankers in 2002 to 11 this year, and will continue to decline in the years to come, I am unconvinced the USFS’s current air tanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season,” Udall wrote. ”Again, I appreciate the attention USFS has already paid to this critical issue, but it is essential that the USFS be prepared today for a fire season that is already looming large in Colorado.”
Tidwell acknowledged that the agency’s current fleet poses some safety risks due to its age and explained that half the planes face mandatory retirement within the next 10 years.
“We need a core fleet of the next generation large airtankers to supplement our boots-on-the-ground firefighters for what we know will be longer and more severe wildfire seasons in years to come,” Tidwell said. “Not only will these newer, more effective airtankers help us keep fires contained and communities safe, they will also protect our brave men and women on the fireline.”
The bill would permit the U.S. Forest Service to issue federal contracts for at least seven large aircraft for emergency wildfire suppression operations before the end of a required 30-day congressional notification period on certain contracts.
Filed under: climate and weather, Colorado, Drought, Environment, forest fires, La Niña Tagged: | Aerial firefighting, air tankers, Mark Udall, National Interagency Fire Center, United States Forest Service, Wildfires