A Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday found that the U.S. Forest Service has failed to justify its need for more firefighting aircraft, because it hasn’t researched the efficiency of its planes and what they do.
Sen. Mark Udall has asked the U.S. Forest Service to review its use of aircraft during the Black Forest fire to distill lessons learned for future fires along the Front Range.
The air response to the fire, the most destructive in state history, has been touted as a great success by the Senator as well as El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa. In a letter to the forest service, Udall asked for details on how the forest service plans to integrate lessons learned from both the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires into future air response plans.
Udall is particularly interested in the use of military aircraft to fight wildfire.
“I was relieved to see that military aircraft from Fort Carson and the Colorado National Guard were activated early in the Black Forest Fire to drop water and fly spotter missions for ground personnel, and eventually dropped approximately 30,000 gallons of water on the fire. On the ground, the 40 personnel from the Colorado’s National Guard Reaction Force who manned security checkpoints in the Black Forest area demonstrated the type of swift cooperation required in rapidly evolving disaster scenarios.”
Udall also requested information about a potential interagency wildfire plan for the Front Range, which could incorporate military as well as forest service aircraft.
Last summer, Udall participated in an after action review of the military aircraft response to the Waldo Canyon fire. Listen to a briefing of that review here.
The U.S. Forest Service announced Monday its plans to create a fleet of “next generation” air tankers for fighting wildfire, a long-anticipated boost to the agency’s decades-old fleet.
The new planes can carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant, whereas the older tankers, some of which were built during the Korean War, can carry up to 1,800 gallons. While the forest service may have announced the contract, there is no indication of when the new tankers will take to the air.
Last year, one of the most devastating wildfire seasons on record, nearly half of the requests for air tanker support went unfulfilled. A Gazette story on April 26 went through the “catch-as-catch-can” air tanker system and detailed why certain requests were unfulfilled.
The reasons requests went unfilled vary — planes were down for maintenance or fighting fire elsewhere, or crews were getting required rest, said Mike Ferris, spokesman for the Boise fire center.
But the availability — or lack thereof — of those tankers has concerned some Colorado firefighters.
“It would be nice to be able to sit here and tell you that we have that the availability 100 percent of the time,” said Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “That’s just not the case.
Without the next generation air tankers, the forest service instead relies on a patch-work system of planes loaned from the Department of Defense, Canada and Alaska.