With Forest Service down to 11 air tankers nationwide, Udall worries about Colorado wildfire safety

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenApril 15, 2012
After an early start to Colorado's wildfire season, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall is concerned that the Forest Service's small, aging air tanker fleet isn't capable of keeping civilians safe.

In a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on Thursday, the senator wrote he “is 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.”
An air tanker drops retardant on an Arizona fire in June 2011.
USFS


Drought, squirrelly winds and a pine beetle epidemic have left many parts of the West susceptible to wildfires. Firefighters have already sprung into action. In Colorado, a prescribed burn that unexpectedly reignited killed three residents near Conifer. More than 15,000 heat records fell nationwide in what was an especially dry and toasty March. With about 98 percent of Colorado in a drought, many experts warn this year has the potential to be the busiest fire season in a decade.

Calls for the Forest Service to upgrade its air tankers have for years come from all corners of Congress. Ten years ago, the agency had 44 air tankers. Today there are only 11 left.

“As you know, the Lower North Fork Fire already burned 4,100 acres in a fast-moving wildfire that took the lives of three Coloradans this year,” Udall wrote. “While I applaud the remarkable work of the wildland firefighters, I have larger concerns about our capacity to respond to future fires, particularly with many aircraft in the air tanker fleet nearing the final years of their lifespan.”

In a strategy statement sent to Congress in February, the Forest Service reported that it expects 10 of its 11 air tankers to be retired by 2021. At that time, Tidwell noted the agency's existing fleet is inadequate and it plans to purchase faster planes that can carry bigger loads across longer distances.

Climate change is making life for foresters difficult, Tidwell said last month.

"We’ve been doing research on the effects of a changing climate to the vegetation on our nation’s forests for over two decades,” he told the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. “When it comes to fire, we’re definitely seeing much longer fire seasons in many parts of the country, another 60 or 70 days longer than what we used to experience.”

Udall has regularly used his position on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to try to secure resources to address wildfire threats and the bark beetle epidemic that is plaguing the West. Last year, he asked for a study of the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire in Boulder County that found air tankers were an essential tool in effectively fighting the fire.

Here is his letter to Tidwell:



Dear Chief Tidwell,

With 98 percent of Colorado under drought conditions and the fire season tragically having started early this year, I write regarding my growing concerns with the U.S. Forest Service's (USFS) aging air tanker fleet.

As you know, the Lower North Fork Fire already burned 4,100 acres in a fast-moving wildfire that took the lives of three Coloradans this year. While I applaud the remarkable work of the wildland firefighters, I have larger concerns about our capacity to respond to future fires, particularly with many aircraft in the air tanker fleet nearing the final years of their lifespan.

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. Given the very real and present danger of wildfire in Colorado and throughout the drought-ridden West, and the very possible event of multiple wildfires in different parts of the country, an aging fleet may be ill-prepared to respond with the necessary air support.

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. I stand ready to work with you to do whatever is necessary to protect our capacity to fight fire and ensure the safety of Coloradans.

Sincerely,
Mark Udall




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