Wednesday, March 28, 2012

With wildfire season approaching, Wyden demands outside review of Forest Service aerial tanker fleet

Charles Pope in the Oregonian: Angered by what he sees as the Forest Service's indifference and alarmed by the potential for catastrophic wildfires this year, Sen. Ron Wyden formally asked Tuesday for an outside review of the government's plan for modernizing its aging fleet of aircraft for fighting fires.

The Oregon Democrat said he decided to ask for the General Accountability Office study after being convinced the Forest Service and Interior Department were not moving fast enough to develop a plan for replacing the fleet. The aerial tankers, which are crucial in fighting big fires, average 50 years old. The government contracts with two private operators for the planes.

"I'm trying to convey a sense of urgency," Wyden said Tuesday in an interview. "This summer I'm concerned about a perfect storm. We haven't had the snow. We've got ... a fleet that's practically aviation dinosaurs and diminished number" of planes.

The state of the fleet is well known and has been in decline for years. The number of tankers available for service, for example, has declined from 44 in 2002 to 14 as of last August. With a diminished snowpack in Oregon and in much of the West as well as the effects of climate change and over-grown forests, Wyden says the potential for huge fires across the region is real.

"Aircraft are important tools that assist the firefighters in controlling wildland fires and help to protect the public, property, and resources," says the letter, which was also signed by senators Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska...

An MH-60S Seahawk helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) Eight Five dumps water from a 420-gallon extinguishing trough October 23, 2007, onto of one of the many areas in San Diego County, California, suffering from an ongoing wildfire. The trough is used to dump water to help fend off the fires that have already forced more than 250,000 people from their homes.

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