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.