Forest service won’t oppose state plan to buy air tankers

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

A slurry bomber dumps on the Weber Fire last year. The state is considering buying their own slurry bombers.

By Stefanie Dazio
Herald Washington Intern

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Forest Service supports a Colorado state Senate bill that would allow Colorado to buy its own firefighting air tanker fleet, according to an agency spokeswoman.

State senators, worried about another bad wildfire season and a diminished federal air tanker fleet, advanced a bill last week that would spend $25 million to create the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, the Herald previously reported.

“We work closely with all our states across the country to provide a mix of resources to fight fires,” said U.S. Forest Chief Thomas Tidwell in an interview Tuesday after a Senate committee hearing. “We need to work together because there’s no entity, there’s no state, there’s no federal agency that can do it on their own.”

State lawmakers and fire officials said Colorado can’t rely on federal air support during wildfire season. The national fleet is down to eight large air tankers under exclusive-use contracts for 2013, according to the Forest Service.

The federal agency acknowledges that so few tankers are insufficient, Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said in an email. The agency will award contracts for up to seven “next generation” large air tankers in the next few weeks to update the aging federal fleet

Tidwell said the Forest Service is ready for the upcoming fire season, which he anticipates will be similar to last year’s.

Because of the high costs of air tankers, the federal government usually handles that fleet, he said. States often contribute smaller aircraft.

California has its own fleet of nearly 50 air tankers and helicopters that can be used to fight wildfires, according to the Denver Post.

Colorado could purchase three 3,000-gallon tankers from a federal surplus property program for about $17.5 million, the Herald previously reported. Operating costs would be an additional $7.6 million per year.

Colorado’s senators and Durango’s congressman have worked for increased federal firefighting dollars, equipment and prevention.

Most recently, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., questioned Tidwell at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Tuesday about working with reduced funding as wildfire season approaches.

The agency will continue its hazardous fuel reduction work, Tidwell testified, but focus on Wildland-Urban Interface areas in the face of budget cuts.

When Udall asked Tidwell to comment, on a scale of one to 10, how confident he was that the Forest Service will have the air assets needed to fight wildfires in the coming season, Tidwell answered with a 10.

“We will respond,” Tidwell said. “We’ll have the resources that we need.”

On the state level, Udall is open to the idea of a state firefighting force, according to spokeswoman Alex McCarthy.

“It makes sense for the state to help build capacity on initial attacks on the wildfires,” McCarthy said.

Udall is still studying the state legislation, according to spokesman Mike Saccone, but is glad Colorado is looking into innovative ways to fight fires.

Udall and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have previously advocated for more funding and air tankers to fight wildfires, including a federal measure with $65.5 million for the Emergency Watershed Program and a nonbinding Senate budget amendment that would raise the federal firefighting budget by $100 million in 2014.

But the senators’ work is not done, their offices said.

“We’re working with Sen. Udall to modernize the fleet and doing everything we can to support forest health — from conservation to the beetle epidemic. We will continue to work with the state to increase efficiencies and enhance collaboration,” Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi said in an email.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, saw his Healthy Forest Management and Wildfire Prevention Act clear a House subcommittee.

The bill would increase state control over forest management on federal lands and allow governors to designate areas as “high risk” and take collaborative action with federal officials to prevent wildfires.

Tipton’s legislation attempts to reduce the need for air tankers with forest management, Green said, calling proactive and reactive efforts for wildfires “all elements of a bigger picture.”

“It’s certainly the state senators’ prerogative,” Green said of the state legislature’s bill.

Staff writer Joe Hanel contributed to this report.

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