It was one of those prototypical bone dry August afternoons in Los Angeles when an arsonist lit the blaze that became the Station Fire. Temperatures that day in 2009 were in the nineties with winds gusting at about 20 miles an hour.
The conditions were perfect for a conflagration. By the time it was extinguished nearly two months later, the Station Fire had burned 160,000 acres, destroyed 89 homes and killed two firefighters. Pictures and video of the scenes show giant plumes of smoke billowing over the city, people sobbing near burnt out homes and horses running scared amid the flames.
In the aftermath, people asked lots of questions about why the Forest Service did not do more with aircraft to control the fire in the early days. And, last December, the General Accounting Office, which audits spending and operational policies of the federal government, concluded the Forest Service did make mistakes. Specifically, the agency did not use retardant-dropping air tankers enough to fight the fire, allowing it to grow out of control.
It happened in part because there were simply not enough Forest Service-contracted air tankers on the West Coast, or they were out of service, according to the GAO report. In fact, the number of air tankers in the Forest Service fleet has declined from 44 in 2002, to just 14 in 2011, said Forest Service officials.
The Forest Service has acknowledged the problem, but its plan to rebuild the aging air tanker fleet is being blasted by a group of powerful Western states senators, including Oregon’s Ron Wyden. These senators want the GAO to delve into the plan in the hopes that additional scrutiny will pressure the agency to beef up its efforts.
A lack of air support for fighting fires is alarming news for those of us living in the driest parts of the West Coast. The forest fire forecast for the summer season appears to be average, according to fire predictors, but temperatures continue to hit record highs every year, leading to more dangerous fire conditions.
“We’re concerned that the forest fires are getting bigger and more disastrous, and we are concerned about the ability of the Forest Service to fight those fires,” said Tom Towslee, Oregon communications director for Wyden.
Towslee said the Forest Service is not only responsible for coming up short on fire response, it’s also culpable for creating conditions for larger fires through reduced thinning and undergrowth clearing in forests throughout the West.
“Because of [those conditions] these forest fires really turn into uncontrollable infernos,” he said. “Basically, the tanker fleet is getting smaller while the forest fires are getting bigger.”
For its part, the Forest Service, and four agencies within the Department of the Interior that fight fires, released a plan in February to acquire more aircraft.
“We need a core fleet of the next generation large air tankers to supplement our boots-on-the-ground firefighters for what we know will be longer and more severe wildfire seasons in years to come,” wrote the chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, in a February news release.
The plan they’ve come up with will replace the current air tanker fleet, which is at least 50 years old, said Tidwell. About half of the agency's available air tankers must be retired in the next 10 years.
According to several Western senators, including Wyden, New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Forest Service’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Last month, the four formally asked the GAO to launch an investigation into the Forest Service’s plan for rebuilding its fleet.
In a letter the four sent to the GAO, they write that they don’t believe the plan developed by the Forest Service and four agencies in the Department of the Interior that also fight fire has done enough, been creative enough, or been collaborative enough to create a plan that will ensure there’s an air tanker ready to drop a thick spray of retardant where it’s needed, when it’s needed.
“It is critical that the agencies conduct a thorough analysis of the number and types of aircraft needed,” they wrote. “Yet, a number of concerns about the agencies’ efforts have been raised, including whether the agencieshave adequately considered and presented all available options.”
At this point, work has not begun on that investigation, said Ned Griffiths, a public affairs officer with the GAO, but the agency will respond to the request within the next week.
In the meantime, fire fighting officials in our region are reluctant to comment on the air tanker shortage, saying it is a national issue.
We do have a number of aircraft for fighting fires based here in Central Oregon, including several helicopters capable of dropping fire retardant.
In the event that we do have a large fire, aircraft resources will be pulled from bases around the Northwest, said Lisa Clark, a public affairs official for the Bureau of Land Management Office in Prineville, a key agency in the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center. That agency is responsible for coordinating forest fire responses in our area.
“Aircraft can move around the nation depending on where the need is,” said Clark.
With their request to the GAO, Senator Wyden and company want to be sure those needs don't exceed demand, leading to more outcomes like the disastrous Station Fire.