Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Unable to fill?

    Most people would be shocked if they called 911 and nobody came.
    But this is what wildland firefighter managers experienced over and over again last summer while working to quell monster fires in the West that threatened entire communities. When they called for any of the 10 heavy air tankers the federal government had under contract, nobody came 25 percent of the time, according to national wildfire records cited by the Arizona Republic. The year before, it was 50 percent  of the time.
    And no wonder. Even as wildfires have gotten bigger, the federal government’s supply of tankers has shrunk from 40 tanker aircraft a decade ago to today’s 10—and that’s only if contract and delivery issues are resolved.
    So, wildland firefighters are likely to get “Unable to fill” responses to their requests for air tankers again this summer unless steps are taken quickly to settle disputes among companies that provide tankers and the U.S. Forest Service, and to address criticism by the General Accounting Office of how contracts are handled. If firefighting efforts are hamstrung by the mess, Western communities could be left to dial 911 with no hope of getting adequate help.
    Residents of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue have seen flames in their backyards twice in seven years. As last year’s Beaver Creek Fire grew quickly, thousands heard the incident commander say repeatedly that firefighters, planes and helicopters were stretched thin by fires blazing from Arizona to Alaska.
    From a cubicle in Washington, D.C., it may be hard for federal officials to comprehend the dry conditions in the West, but they need to—soon. Fire season is nearly here. It’s time to quit arguing over the fine print and get the tankers ready to go.

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