Western States Struggle to Meet Wildfire Threats

 

It's no surprise to state and federal forest managers that Western states are facing another season of potentially devastating wildfires.

An unseasonably warm spring, six years of drought, widespread infestations by tree-killing beetles and a century of fire suppression have turned much of the West's forests into dense tinderboxes.

Despite dire warnings that catastrophic wildfires are becoming the norm in the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies and Southwest, Western states are at their lowest level of fire preparedness in years, observers say. With the first fires of summer already blazing, firefighting efforts are in danger of being hindered by budget shortfalls, National Guard deployments and cuts to federal fire programs.

"It all adds up to a real shortage of resources," said Jay Watson, Wildland Fire Program director for the Wilderness Society. "This unpreparedness flies in the face of all the rhetoric we've heard from this (Bush) administration about the forest-fire crisis and the real need for proactive fire prevention."

Western lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are unhappy with the Bush administration for unexpectedly grounding a fleet of 33 air tankers that are used to dump fire retardant and for refusing to provide extra money to hire additional temporary firefighters for this summer.

Congressman Norman D. Dicks (D) of Washington state says there will be 3,000 fewer seasonal firefighters or 30% less -- this summer than last year unless the White House or Congress immediately coughs up emergency funds. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that a staff memo from the GOP-controlled U.S. House Appropriations Committee warns that a shortage of money to hire extra firefighters could result "in failed firefighting efforts, with potential for significant loss of lives and property."

"Everyone knows that the budget for firefighting this summer is woefully inadequate," Dicks said last week in a statement. "Anyone who lives in the West and sees the hot, dry conditions knows that we are going to have a very difficult fire year."

This summer's fire season started three weeks earlier than usual in Southern California, where 29,000 acres already have burnt and 28 homes were destroyed in the same region where more than 20 people died fleeing forest fires last fall. In New Mexico this week, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) declared a state of emergency after two wildfires blazed out of control in the Lincoln National Forest, also known as the birthplace of Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service's symbol for fire prevention.

The Forest Service's decision two weeks ago to ground 33 air tankers, the bulk of the fleet used to fight forest fires by plane, is the toughest blow to Western states' fire preparedness. Federal officials cited safety concerns after two tankers broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people, but the move infuriated lawmakers and some Western governors who say the abrupt grounding could threaten the safety of communities in their states.

"The decision to terminate a critical tool the state of Montana uses to fight fire will seriously limit our effectiveness in an extreme fire danger year like the one we are entering," Montana Gov. Judy Martz (R) wrote in a letter last week urging U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversees the Forest Service, to find a way to return the planes to service. Similar letters have been sent to Veneman from several Western governors and members of Congress.

New Mexico Gov. Richardson, who sent a letter to Veneman, said that the 25,000-acre Peppin Fire now burning out of control in his state could have been contained if the heavy tankers had not been grounded.

"I was shocked to be told this fire could have been held to a single acre if the heavy air tankers had been available at the beginning," Richardson said in a statement.

Lawmakers said in the letters they are upset that the wholesale cancellation of tanker contracts with private contractors was based on investigations into only a small number of older aircraft.

Mark Rey, an Agriculture Department undersecretary, testified before Congress in May that the federal government is prepared to handle the fire season and will rely on additional helicopters and smaller aircraft in place of the air tankers.

The grounding of the tankers has set off a fierce dispute between Western lawmakers and the Forest Service. Arizona Sen. John McCain (R ), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, will hold a hearing next week to find out whether the tankers can be put back into service this summer.

The president of Neptune Aviation, a private company based in Missoula, Mont., that owns eight of the grounded tankers, said her company's planes were inspected and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Forest Service before the contracts were canceled earlier this month.

"This is ludicrous. It's unbelievable and completely unjust," said Kristen Schloemer, whose company of 100 employees will start laying off workers in about 30 days and could possibly go out of business without the government contracts, which pay upwards of $30,000 per day during the fire season.

"Very few of the smaller operators will survive this," Schloemer said.

Meanwhile, some states already have diverted scant state forest-fire funds to hire replacement aircraft and to reposition crews and equipment to respond to fires faster.

"Our agency felt a big void by those tankers not being available," said Bill Lafferty, director of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Seven of the tankers are based in Oregon.

Lafferty said Oregon is exhausting the last of its $10 million emergency fire reserve to lease four replacement planes because the fire threat is too great to face without the massive tankers, which drop up to 3,000 gallons of slurry.

Surprisingly, two of the Oregon-chartered tankers are among the 33 grounded by the federal government, sparking the ire of federal officials. Now the Forest Service is ordering Oregon not to use the state-chartered 40-year-old tankers to battle fires on federal lands, which make-up nearly half the state and include some of its most fire-prone forests, Lafferty said.

Other states, such as New Mexico and California, have made agreements with the National Guard to keep extra helicopters and National Guard firefighters on standby, and Arizona fire officials plan to request $1.5 million from Gov. Janet Napolitano to hire more rural firefighters.

Some states, however, are facing a shortage of National Guard troops, which often are called on by governors to fight large forest fires. More than half of the nation's 345,000 Army National Guard troops are serving or have been mobilized for overseas deployment in hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with 32 percent just three months ago.

Oregon called up more than 1,400 Army Guard soldiers in 2002 during one of the worst forest fire seasons in state history. The largest fire that year, the Biscuit Fire, lasted 5 months and burned nearly 500,000 acres, costing the state $60 million.

With 35 percent of its guard troops recently mobilized, Oregon could not depend on the same level of support this year that the National Guard provided in 2002, Lafferty said.

Also hard hit are Washington, where more than half the state's guard troops are deployed overseas, and New Mexico, with 40 percent mobilized.

Worst off in the nation is Idaho, where 80 percent of National Guard troops have been mobilized for deployment to Iraq this summer.

"Even when everyone is in state, you're never quite certain you can handle the biggest fires," Mike Journee, spokesperson for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), said. "So it is a concern for the governor with a significant portion of the brigade not being here." 

 
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