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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Friday — May 28, 2004

Arts and Entertainment

Clipped firefighting wings

Express Staff Writer

U.S. military intelligence suspected that foreign terrorists were targeting America’s richly-wooded forests for sabotage, Washington’s reaction would be swift, overwhelming and with no expense spared to protect America’s natural treasures.

Yet, cracker-dry Western states find themselves begging the Bush administration for defenses against a fire season that the Bureau of Land Management predicts will not only be bad, but worse than last year--and surely as ruinous as any terrorist could create with a torch.

Already plagued by prolonged cycles of drought as well as skimpy federal funding, the Forest Service recently delivered the final and most devastating blow. For safety reasons, it grounded the entire fleet of 33 aging fire bombers that swoop low over timberland blazes and dump as many as 3,000 gallons of fire retardant in a single pass.

As replacements, eight C-130 Hercules military transports have been rounded up, a wholly insufficient alternative. The Forest Service is adamant about sticking with its decision, despite congressional pressures and new investigations into the aircraft grounding.

More must be done, quickly, to give fire-vulnerable states and the Forest Service an even chance in dealing with fire season outbreaks that some experts predict will be calamitous.

If private operators of grounded air tankers are unable to provide proper maintenance to keep them in safe flying condition, then Congress must budget funds for the lease or purchase of relatively younger high-capacity air tankers. Experienced crews of grounded aircraft could get these planes into operation.

Several hundred smaller airplanes and helicopters called up for firefighting duties are no substitute: They’re useful only for spot drops of retardant on minor blazes. It falls to the large aircraft, therefore, to reach remote areas with large loads to snuff out the raging major wild fires.

Federal agencies responsible for public lands already operate their own ground firefighting equipment, as well as aircraft from which firefighters parachute to fight remote blazes. Why not a firefighting aerial fleet?

Short-changing the Forest Service is not new for this Congress. The so-called "demo fee" program at trailheads exemplifies Washington’s buck-passing of budget responsibilities.

But battling ferocious woodland blazes won’t be solved by the customary political delays and committee studies. Mother Nature’s fire season doesn’t operate on Washington time.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.