By Ben Goad
The Press Enterprise
WASHINGTON — With another potentially devastating wildfire season on the horizon, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress on Tuesday that his agency's diminished and aging fleet of firefighting air tankers is insufficient to combat the nation's increasingly severe blazes.
Air tankers are a central component of the Forest Service's firefighting operations, particularly in Inland Southern California, where communities like Lake Arrowhead, Idyllwild and Big Bear are surrounded by rugged terrain and are accessible by only a few roads. But the number of air tankers at the agency's disposal has fallen from 43 to11 in the last 12 years as airworthiness issues grounded many of the decades-old aircraft.
"This is not enough," Tidwell told a Senate panel during a hearing on the Forest Service's 2013 budget plan.
The proposal contains a request for $24 million to help modernize the agency's aerial firefighting fleet, and the Forest Service is moving forward to acquire more tankers. But it's unclear when additional aircraft would be available.
The fleet has dwindled while fire seasons have grown longer and more destructive, a trend attributed in part to climate change. Wildfires scorched more than 8 million acres last year, placing 2011 among the five worst years over at least a half-century. All of the top five fire years have happened since 1998.
"We're having much more severe fire behavior than we've ever experienced in the past," Tidwell said.
Together, the reduced resources and increased fire danger could create a "perfect storm" in this year's fire season, Sen. Ron Wyden warned.
"What are we going to do in this fire season, when it looks like our capacity to fight these fires has atrophied to the point where there are real questions about whether we'll be able to deal with this season?" Wyden, D-Ore., asked.
Tidwell said the Forest Service had contracted a pair of "Scoopers," smaller planes able to drop hundreds of gallons at a time on flames in remote areas. He said the agency would have to rely more heavily on its fleet of 30 large firefighting helicopters, down from 34 helicopters last year. Under mutual-aid agreements in California, state firefighting planes also could used to help the Forest Service.
The agency likely would have access to eight Air National Guard tankers, though Tidwell said Defense Department officials have indicated they are "not interested in expanding their mission to assist in this."
Some criticism for the dilemma was directed at the Forest Service. In January, the agency released a 12-page report outlining a strategy to modernize its fleet, bringing the total number of air tankers to at least 18 and as many as 28.
The report was completed a full year after officials told California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others it would be ready. On Tuesday, Feinstein said the report doesn't describe clear options about what types of planes are needed or how much they will cost.
"Experts are predicting a busy fire season, so it is imperative that the Forest Service provide Congress with a detailed explanation and acquisition strategy for these new aircraft," she said.
Tidwell said the agency has been working aggressively on the plan. Part of the decrease in available planes is because one of the vendors that supplies aircraft didn't meet contract specifications, he said.
The prospect of limited resources is a concern to some in the Inland area's mountain communities, where residents have grown accustomed to seeing tankers circling overhead in summer and fall.
"The air tankers have been such a big part of the firefighting out here for so many years," said Gerry Newcomb, president of the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council. "When you start reducing that fleet, it could certainly be a problem."
Forest Service officials are expecting the 2012 fire season to be similar to last year in the Southwest. While Inland Southern California was largely spared from large fires last year, other parts of the region were not, including Arizona, where the record-breaking Wallow Fire alone blackened more than a half-million acres.
Following massive firestorms in 2003 and 2007, officials have worked aggressively to clear brush away from fire-prone communities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Newcomb, a resident of Rim Forest, said his council has used federal grants to remove hazardous brush and trees from the San Bernardino Mountains.
But large expanses of hillsides that haven't burned since 2003 or before remain a potential problem, and rainfall this winter has been far below normal. Virtually all of California is in a drought or is abnormally dry, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Beyond the danger to communities, the reduced capability to battle flames from above also could burden taxpayers. The air tankers' greatest value is in the initial attack on a fast-moving wildfire, Tidwell said. The retardant they drop can slow a fire's progress and buy time for firefighters on the ground to gain the upper hand, thus keeping fires smaller and less expensive, he said.
Keeping costs down has been a challenge in recent years. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, noted that the Forest Service has had to borrow from other accounts when fire suppression funds ran out in past years.
Bingaman, R-N.M., asked Tidwell whether the agency had enough firefighting money for the year ahead.
"It's going to be very tight for us to be able to have adequate suppression funding this year," Tidwell answered.
If the money runs out, he testified, the agency would have to use funds otherwise used for trail and road maintenance, as well as the very-hazardous-fuels removal projects meant to prevent large wildfires.
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