Don’t be fooled by the recent drenching of the Inland Northwest. Conditions are ripe for a dangerous wildfire season, and firefighters may not have all of the tools they need to fight back.
National fire managers’ February forecast spared the Pacific Northwest from dire predictions because of considerable snowfall in the mountains, but unseasonably warm weather in March and April began melting the snowpack. Now the agency has told the Associated Press that the greatest danger lies in the Northern Rockies of Idaho and Montana, the Pacific Northwest and Southern California.
In Washington state, the Department of Natural Resources has already fought 70 small fires. That’s 50 more than the agency typically faces by this time of year. Dry conditions are already akin to those usually found in July and August.
What’s worse, federal agencies and Congress are contributing to a state of unreadiness by grounding air tankers that drop fire retardant and by holding up firefighting funds.
The Forest Service and the Department of Interior recently canceled contracts with companies that supply 33 huge air tankers that drop slurry on the largest of wildfires. Those agencies say they don’t have the expertise to guarantee the safety of the World War II-era aircraft. The feds’ worries stem from two crashes by tankers supplied by a Wyoming contractor.
But other contractors rightly point out that the government is overreacting by canceling all contracts. For instance, Neptune Aviation of Missoula supplies a different type of plane and has a sterling safety record. The Forest Service has tried to downplay the grounding of the tankers by saying smaller aircraft can fill the void, but some wildfire managers are skeptical.
“We’re quite concerned,” said Steve Harris, fire prevention coordinator for Washington state’s DNR.
Because the tankers can haul up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, they are critical in fighting crown fires in which the flames leap from tree to tree. It’s simply too dangerous to put people near such fires. Smaller aircraft and helicopters can’t carry nearly as much retardant.
Reacting to complaints from Western members of Congress, the feds have announced that the Federal Aviation Administration may get involved in tanker inspections. Already it looks as if eight former Navy planes may be cleared for service this summer, but more tankers will be needed as summer approaches.
The other obstacle for firefighters is that the much-ballyhooed Healthy Forests Initiative may not be fully funded. The law, which was signed by President Bush in December, was designed to give contracts to private loggers to clear the brush and dead trees that fuel deadly fires near population centers. But full funding of the law is caught up in budget wrangling between the House and Senate. Without more money, only a fraction of the brush and trees will be removed this year, and the promise of that law will go up in flames.
Fire forecasters have spread the warning. Now, it’s up to the federal government to react quickly and responsibly.
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