LIVING IN THE STUPID ZONE:
HOMEOWNERS IN THE INTERFACE
JUNE 29 -- SAN BERNARDINO, CA: Mountain residents for years have ducked accountability for building at-risk homes in the wildland/urban interface, and even after San Bernardino County last year endured its most devastating wildfire in history, none of the county's mountain communities require residents to protect their homes. Instead, says the San Bernardino Sun, they have put the onus on policymakers and firefighters.
In a new in-depth report on fires and floods and mudslides called "Unnatural Disasters," the Sun accuses public officials of misunderstanding, ignoring, or downplaying a known fire-flood cycle that has killed dozens of people and resulted in tremendous monetary losses that have been underwritten by U.S. taxpayers.
Rolland Crawford, chief of the Loma Linda Fire Department, says homeowners ignore fire-safe messages and the need for defensible space. "People say, 'I need to be among the trees. I didn't move to the desert,'" says Crawford.
The ever-expanding wildland/urban interface increases the fire danger for not just residents, but also natural resources in the surrounding foothills and mountain areas. And it substantially increases the risks that firefighters face in trying to defend homes from wildfire. Insurance companies require woodstove permits and flue inspections by fire personnel in states such as Oregon, and some insurance companies have recently begun requiring that homeowners reduce their exposure to fire danger by creating defensible space. But those are the exceptions -- in most areas, homeowners are free to build fire-prone homes with fire-prone landscaping in fire-prone areas, with no accountability.
"You can't tell people not to live there but they have to take the liability," said UC Riverside Professor Richard Minnich, an expert on forestry and fire ecology.
In some cases, government agencies have assessed and mapped fire and flood hazards and then failed to notify residents about the dangers they identified. Lytle Creek resident Randy Rose, 32, expressed surprise upon learning that government agencies had assessed hazards that directly affected his home -- and no one contacted him.
"If it's our house that's in jeopardy, that could be leveled, and all these agencies have been working together, why haven't they notified us?" asked Rose. "Where does the responsibility lie?"
But in other cases, residents were specifically told of the hazards and chose to ignore warnings. The manager of the KOA campground near Devore that was hit by a mudslide last year, for example, was warned about the dangers of flooding after last fall's fires denuded slopes above the campground. Yet no steps were taken to prepare for the tragedy that followed record rainfall in December.
The report by the Sun suggests that people perhaps consider fire an enemy that can be beaten, unlike other natural disasters. "There are no earthquake fighters, flood fighters, or tornado fighters," says the report. "The term 'firefighter' signifies an individual that not only can battle a blaze, but defeat it."
NEW SIERRA WILDFIRE EVACUATES MARINES
JUNE 29 -- COLEVILLE, CA: Fires ignited by lightning have burned more then 3,000 acres near the rural community of Coleville, temporarily evacuating a Marine Corps housing unit and closing U.S. Highway 395. The Vittori Fire started late yesterday near another fire and quickly spread to 900 acres.
The Cole Complex on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest includes the Dana, Post, Marine, and Cole fires; it was 45 percent contained last night at 3,088 acres. The fires are 60 miles south of Reno, burning in sagebrush and piñon-juniper. Brunner's Type 2 team is on the complex and reported that the Post and Cole fires have been contained. The Marine Fire exhibited extreme rates of spread yesterday, with major slope-driven runs and sustained torching in heavier fuels.
The AP reported that crews were pulled from the complex to attack the Vittori Fire, along with nine helicopters and five SEATs. Fire Information Officer Franklin Pemberton said this morning that the fire was about 30 percent contained, but that steep, rocky slopes and limited access were slowing containment progress.
The fire's about 20 miles north of Walker, California, where a fire in 2002 burned 23,000 acres. Three men on that fire were killed when their airtanker crashed after its wings came off.
COLORADO KEEPING UP WITH INITIAL ATTACK
AFTER LIGHTNING BUST
JUNE 28 -- DURANGO, CO: Firefighters in La Plata County and the surrounding area have successfully contained more than 40 lightning-caused wildfires over the last several days after afternoon thunderstorms rolled through; all 40 were contained in initial attack. Durango Interagency Fire Dispatch Center manager Chris Buckman told the Durango Herald that all of the fires -- 13 on Friday, 28 on Saturday, and two on Sunday -- were kept to 10 acres or less by firefighters with the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Mesa Verde National Park, Delores Ranger District, Columbine Ranger District, and Pagosa Ranger District.
Buckman said most people don't realize the number of fires that are reported and quickly contained. "They always hear about the ones that get away," he said, "but they don't hear about the ones they catch."
"These firefighters are good," Buckman said. "Once they saw the smoke they launched immediately. They were on those fires like white on rice."
UTAH'S SQUARE COMPLEX UP TO 15,000 ACRES
JUNE 28 -- ST. GEORGE, UTAH: More than 300 firefighters were on the Square Complex northwest of St. George yesterday.
The complex consists of two fires that started Saturday morning and burned together around Square Mountain in rugged terrain of mountain brush, piñon-juniper, and sagebrush.
Incident Commander Larry LeForte, with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, told the Salt Lake Tribune that firefighting efforts will escalate today, with a national management team taking over and additional crews coming in from around the country.
LeForte said that three SEATs and four helicopters were busy on the fire and that a ranch in the area was evacuated yesterday as a precaution. Crews were pulled off the fireline for two hours yesterday afternoon for safety reasons after thunderstorms moved over the fire and downward winds threatened to spread it rapidly.
Turbulent air conditions forced the grounding of the airtankers late in the afternoon.
"The fire did some pretty good runs today," said LeForte. "We're not being helped by Mother Nature, that's for sure."
The fire is one of about 20 ignited by lightning in southern Utah since Friday. Smokejumpers were fighting the 7-acre Hollow Fire in a remote area north of St. George on the Dixie National Forest.
HIGH WINDS FLARE ANOTHER UTAH FIRE
JUNE 27 -- ST. GEORGE, UTAH: A wind-pushed wildfire ignited by lightning on Friday burned 6,000 acres today, according to KSL-TV out of Salt Lake City, pushing the fire to about 12,000 acres. High winds kicked up the fire, burning near St. George. The fire yesterday burned to within a mile of a major utility area, but crews managed to clear enough of the fuels to keep the fire from shutting the area down.
"This particular one just really heated up and took off," said David Boyd, a BLM fire information officer. "It's been smoldering all morning, but it's really making a run now." He said all but a few hundred acres of the 12,000-acre fire had burned since yesterday afternoon.
More than 200 firefighters, five helicopters, and an airtanker were on the fire today. KSL-TV has video clips online.
FIRE ON THE TONTO DOUBLES IN SIZE, SOUTHWEST BUSY
JUNE 27 -- TUCSON, AZ: Dry vegetation and high winds combined today to fuel the growth of a wildfire on the Tonto National Forest to more than 10,000 acres. The Willow Fire in the Mazatzal Wilderness Area doubled in size today. Though the fire is still miles away from private property, crews have been backfiring to protect ranches. The AP reported that forest roads near the ranches have been closed.
The fire's rapid growth over rugged terrain prompted the order for another incident management team; the fire's less than 10 percent contained, with four helicopters, three other aircraft, and about 200 personnel assigned.
Farther north in Arizona, crews were mopping up a 25-acre fire this morning on the Fort Apache Reservation about six miles northeast of Cedar Creek. The Walnut Springs Fire was first spotted around 6:30 p.m last night. Because of extremely dry fuel conditions, fire suppression activities were immediate, involving airtanker drops, dozers, engines, and crews. Approximately 155 people were still on the fire this morning.
BLM-Yuma personnel were this afternoon working the Jerry Can Fire, at 80 acres, just west of San Luis, Arizona, and crews were busy on the Welch Fire, under BIA jurisdiction, estimated at 250 acres about 11 miles north of Ehrenberg, Arizona. Another fire this afternoon was burning about 10 miles southeast of Cordes Junction, estimated at 200 acres including burnout, and Oltrogge's Type 1 team was ordered this morning for the Nuttall Fire on the Coronado. No word yet on whether R3 will follow suit and refuse assignments for IMTs that include non-federal command and general staff, as R5 has ordained.
NEW FIRE MARSHAL AND DIRECTOR
NAMED FOR CALIFORNIA
JUNE 27 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named two municipal fire chiefs as state fire marshal and director of CDF on Friday, highlighting the importance of firefighting following southern California's firestorm last fall. He chose Dale Geldert to head CDF, bringing the 61-year-old out of retirement. The AP reported that Geldert most recently was fire chief and deputy city manager for the city of Oceanside from 1992 to 2002.
Palo Alto Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva, 49, was named state fire marshal. Grijalva has been chief there since 1994, and before that was the department's assistant fire chief.
Geldert was a CDF forest ranger from 1988 to 1991, on the fire side of the department's dual mission. Republican former Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Geldert to the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection in November 1996, where he served until January 1999 as chairman of the California Fire Protection Committee and the Firescope Northern Operations Committee.
California Forestry Association President Dave Bischel said Geldert "clearly has the kind of experience and understanding to deal with the most significant issue that our forests face today, which is catastrophic wildfire and developing a strategy to deal with that issue."
CDF fights an average 6,300 wildland fires a year on 31 million acres of nonfederal land. The Office of the State Fire Marshal is a part of CDF, focusing on structure fires.
SIERRA WILDFIRE THREATENS USMC BASE
JUNE 27 -- COLEVILLE, CA: High winds yesterday pushed a fire to 700 acres, threatening a Marine Corps housing facility along the eastern Sierra Nevada. Firefighters said they had no containment lines around the fire as of late yesterday afternoon, and were concerned that winds could push the fire toward the housing unit north of Coleville, 80 miles south of Reno, Nevada.
The facility houses personnel at the U.S. Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Pickel Meadows near Sonora Pass.
Fire information officer Franklin Pemberton said homes and other structures in the Holbrook Junction and Topaz Lake areas of Nevada also were also threatened, and the AP reported down-canyon gusts of up to 40 mph.
According to staff at the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden, the fire shut down U.S. 395 from the Nevada line to Bridgeport last night, but the highway was reopened this morning. About 250 firefighters were assigned, along with several helicopters and an airtanker.
Meteorologists are expecting another day of dry isolated thunderstorms across northern Nevada today.
JUNE 26 -- ANCHORAGE, ALASKA: A 90-mile stretch of highway in Alaska is closed because of wildfires, and officials are trying to get more stranded people out of the tiny town of Chicken. About 100 people are still in the mining community near the Canadian border, according to a report by WRAL-TV, and the 33,000-acre fire is about a mile south of Chicken. About 100 people were ferried out of Chicken in a caravan of RVs and other vehicles yesterday. Another convoy carried supplies into town with fires burning on both sides of the highway. Information on the status of Chicken has been sketchy because there are no land phone lines in the area.
Craig McCaa, a fire information officer in Tok, said that three fires fueled by light winds and hot, dry air prompted the closure of the Taylor Highway on Thursday on both sides of Chicken. According to an AP report, Chicken has a population of 21. Seasonal miners and travelers were also stranded there.
Huge, smoky fires are burning throughout east-central Alaska; most of the fires were triggered by lightning around June 14 and 15, when a record-breaking 8,500 strikes hit the state in just 24 hours. The image at right is from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite; it shows the region lit up with fires billowing large amounts of smoke, which hangs over the Yukon Territory, Canada. Areas where MODIS detected active fires are outlined in red.
At the top of the image are the Pingo (top) and Winter Trail (to the southeast) Fires, each of which was more than 50,000 acres as of June 24 when the image was captured. Along the Tanana River in the lower part of the image, the Billy Creek Fire has been putting up a massive smoke plume. To the southeast of the Billy Creek Fire, the Porcupine Fire is putting up a smaller, but nonetheless impressive column of smoke.
Image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.
Andy Alexandrou, a fire information officer at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center at Fort Wainwright, said the eastern half of the state from Fort Yukon to Eagle to Northway and east to the Yukon Territory is experiencing extreme fire behavior. Fairbanks, Delta Junction, and Tok, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, are considered in the high to extreme fire danger rating. Of the 53 active fires in the state, 11 are being staffed, Alexandrou said, and those 11 fires are in the Interior.
The National Weather Service is predicting even hotter temperatures through the weekend, making an already busy fire season more volatile.
"It's going to get busier," said Alexandrou, a retired fire management officer out of McGrath. "Basing it on my previous background, I do think we're in for more activity."
A total of 350,650 acres have burned in 298 fires statewide so far this year, coming close to catching the 352,061 acres that have burned thus far in the Lower 48. The 1,000-acre Wall Street Fire was threatening to burn a campground, the Chicken No. 1 fire was at 33,000 acres, and the Porcupine Fire crossed the Taylor Highway at 16.5 Mile and has burned more than 13,000 acres. The 10,000-acre American Summit Fire outside Eagle is being staffed by the Alaska Fire Service. Crews have made significant progress on the Solstice Complex north of Fort Yukon and 10 of the 16 fires have been contained. Two are being monitored and four others are staffed.
Because of active fires and smoky conditions, the Taylor Highway was closed from the Alaska Highway to just past the Jack Wade Junction, the point where the Top of the World Highway begins and the Taylor Highway continues on to Eagle. The Steese Highway also has been closed intermittently. When it's open, a pilot car leads traffic starting at 45.5 Mile to Sourdough Creek at 65.5 Mile.
DALTON HOTSHOTS HIT BY LIGHTNING
JUNE 25 -- TUCSON, AZ: Crewmembers on the Dalton Hotshots were injured by lightning yesterday afternoon while working on the Noon Fire on Mt. Graham. Scott Gorman and Jeff Every were evacuated by helicopter and flown to the helibase at the base of the mountain; they were then transported to a hospital in Safford. Both were admitted for treatment and 48-hour observation.
The hotshots reportedly suffered first-degree burns, and one reported numbness in the lower limbs. Some disorientation was reported last night, but has since been reduced, and both are reportedly alert and stable. Two other crewmembers, Travis Anway and Brandon Burrill, walked off the fire and were later taken to the hospital and are also being kept there for observation.
A Critical Stress Debriefing Team was ordered to meet with the remainder of the crew, and personnel from the Angeles are conducting an After-Action Review today.
The Noon Complex where the crew was working consisted of three fires. Two additional fires were ignited in the Mt. Graham area by the same storm that injured the hotshots.
The lightning-caused Noon Fire started on the evening June 22 in rugged terrain in the Pinaleno Mountains about 12 air miles southwest of Safford. According to personnel on the Coronado National Forest, five crews of hotshots were working on the fireline at about 7000 feet when the fast-moving thunderstorm approached. The lightning strike thought to have been responsible for the firefighters' injuries was probably the first -- or one of the first -- strikes. The injured firefighters were on a rocky slope, and were probably injured by electrical current traveling underground rather than a direct hit.
Two hotshot crews are working on the Noon Fire today, patrolling the fireline and mopping up.
The Dalton Interagency Hotshot Crew is based on the Angeles National Forest in Glendora, California; the crew was on assignment to the Coronado National Forest at the time of the incident. The hotshots were evacuated by the 305th Rescue Squadron, an Air Force Reserve Unit stationed at Davis Monthan Air Force Base.
Fire managers have cautioned that afternoon cloud buildups of late have been accompanied by lightning, and all fire personnel should use extreme caution. Lightning can pose a danger even from miles away. If you see lightning in the area where you are working, take cover in your vehicle or move off ridgetops and away from tall trees or other objects.
NEW 125-ACRE FIRE ON THE TONTO
JUNE 25 -- TUCSON, AZ: The Willow Fire, ignited by lightning yesterday on the Tonto National Forest, was at 125 acres this morning, burning near Horseshoe Lake. Three helicopters and two hotshot crews are working the fire, and the Forest Service says two C-130 MAFFS units are available if needed. KVOA-TV reported that three other small lightning-caused fires on the Tonto are being monitored.
The Payson Roundup reported that all of the Tonto is now under fire restrictions. Restrictions on campfires, smoking and other activities were extended Wednesday to include all of the Tonto, Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, and Prescott national forests.
The Jacket Fire on the Coconino National Forest, which started on Tuesday, is at 600 acres with zero containment. It's southeast of Winona, Arizona, burning in grass and piñon-juniper, and has threatened three outbuildings. An abandoned homestead on private land was wrapped with fire-resistant material for protection. The fire yesterday was very active in dead piñon, with torching and profuse spotting. The fire's being monitored.
PILOT SAYS AIRTANKERS ARE SAFE
JUNE 24 -- SILVER CITY, NM: The 33 heavy tankers grounded by federal fire officials in May, allegedly because of safety issues, are "absolutely safe," according to a Silver City pilot.
Bill Waldman, a pilot with Aero Union, he has been flying airtankers for 36 years, and he told the Silver City Daily Press that with 162 years of service time, the airtankers have experienced just five accidents while engaged in firefighting activity. Waldman pointed out that no one on the ground was ever killed or injured in any of the accidents, despite recent comments about such possibilities from the Forest Service and USDA officials.
"None of the types of airtankers currently in the fleet have had any structural failures," said Dean Talley with the Associated Airtanker Pilots. "No one on the ground has ever been killed or injured in an airtanker accident. Allusions to these sorts of disasters are theatrical," said Talley in a recent guest editorial in the Chico News and Review.
In years past, one of the heavy airtankers has usually been based at the Grant County Airport during southwest New Mexico's spring and summer fire season. This year, the Forest Service is using SEATs and helicopters instead.
Waldman says the Forest Service's citing of safety concerns in canceling the airtanker contracts is nothing but a "red herring." The real reason for the decision, he said, was that the agency was concerned about its liability after the NTSB determined the Forest Service is responsible for ensuring the airtankers' airworthiness.
But, he said, the agency does not have the expertise to do so. "So, because of the liability, they canceled the contract," said Waldman.
"The Forest Service is putting out the spin they have all these substitute resources," he said. "What they don't tell you is that the single-engine airtankers have a limited capacity." He explained that the use of SEATs on fires in light fuels is one thing, but that they're of limited use on a forest fire. Waldman provided a Forest Service fact sheet about the single-engine aircraft, which states: "SEATs are very effective in light and moderate fuels such as grass and brush. They can operate on timber fires, but don't carry a sufficient volume of liquid to penetrate most timber canopies."
The SEATs, he said, are designed to fight grass fires and light-fuel fires. But the Forest Service fact sheet claims that SEATs, "due to their smaller size and flight characteristics, have an advantage over larger, fixed-wing aircraft in their ability to maneuver over fires and deliver liquid more accurately and effectively." But Waldman said SEATs are not more maneuverable than the big airtankers when at high altitude, in mountain terrain, with heavy loads.
Most of the pilots in fire -- and increasingly more fire managers on the ground -- have criticized the federal agencies' decision to cancel airtanker contracts. They say that a very important tool in the box has been removed from the firefighters' ability to fight the wildfire battle. "The people who fight fire do so with the same intensity others reserve for war," says Talley. "In the past, losses were accepted as a fact of life, and there were too many. This is not something that cropped up in the last 10 years, as suggested by Forest Service leadership. Working in one of the harshest flight environments imaginable, the industry has had a safety record that has continued to improve over time, in spite of chronic under-funding and a lack of leadership to resolve the structural problems within the Forest Service and BLM."
"The facts are available, but they are not in sound bites and public-relations dispatches," adds Talley. "The agencies are more afraid of the past than the problems they are creating for the future."
CAMERAMAN ACCUSED OF SETTING WILDFIRE
WILL BE RETRIED
JUNE 24 -- LOS ANGELES, CA: A Superior Court judge has set a retrial for July 23 in the case of a cameraman accused of setting a wildfire in Leona Valley two years ago. A jury in March acquitted 23-year-old Joshua Harville of Palmdale on five counts of arson; the jury split on two counts of aggravated arson.
NBC4-TV reported that Los Angeles County prosecutors said they will retry Harville on the two aggravated arson charges. Harville allegedly set the fire so he could get exclusive TV footage of the fire.
The 5,100-acre fire in September 2002 destroyed five homes and evacuated about 200 residents.
HAND CREWS NOT LIKELY IN MAGALIA
JUNE 24 -- CHICO, CA: The fire center in Magalia is empty, and state budget negotiations are still ongoing in the state's capital; by now the fire center should be busy with two fire crews in training. Funding for the usually busy fire crews hasn't been committed yet by the state Department of Finance, and local fire managers aren't certain that it will be.
And, as the Chico Enterprise-Record reported, many of the candidates for firefighter positions on the crews have now hired on with private firefighting contractors or found other summer jobs.
"Everybody who is qualified is already committed elsewhere," said Don Steele, a director with the Butte County Fire Safe Council.
The Magalia Fire Center for years has housed as many as 60 members of the California Conservation Corps. New barracks were built about four years ago, housing crews that were trained to work on wildfires. Other public service work such as trail clearing and construction of fuel breaks was also done by the crews. But budget cuts forced the state to disband the CCC crews before the start of last year's fire season.
About 30 seasonal and entry-level CDF personnel were stationed in Magalia last summer. But there's no money for that this year, according to CDF Battalion Chief Mark Nelson.
"This could leave us short one of our biggest tools," he said.
With the CCC gone and CDF's lease expired on a building in Durham, the agency has mostly used the Magalia facility as a regional fire training center. Steele said that inmate crews will be available, but they might be dispatched to almost anywhere in California during fire season.
Even if funding becomes available, Nelson says it takes several weeks to screen, hire, and train new applicants -- it could be mid-August or later before Magalia's got fire crews again. "Given the weather pattern that's been forecast," said Steele, "I think we'd better start bugging Sacramento."
AGENCY OFFICIALS DIFFER ON AIRTANKER ISSUE
JUNE 23 -- MESA, AZ: A beefed-up fleet of helicopters and SEATs, along with MAFFS support, is just as good at fighting Arizona fires as the large airtankers canceled earlier this year by federal officials -- or that's what the feds say.
But other fire managers disagree.
"One of the tools isnít in the toolbox anymore," Deputy State Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh told the East Valley Tribune. "The resources have been compromised."
Such differing opinions reflect just part of the debate about the cancellation of the heavy airtankers. The "reconfiguration" of the countryís air resources -- though expensive -- will cover the loss of the grounded planes, said officials with the Bush administration who visited Arizona on Monday. During a news conference at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Interior Secretary Gail Norton said the country is entering a new phase of wildfire management.
"We can double the amount of firefighting capability as in the past, and at the same time we increase the safety," she said.
Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, also in Mesa, said 139 extra helicopters and airplanes have been put on to make up for the loss of the large airtankers -- at a cost of $66 million. He said that includes 23 helicopters and 19 SEATs in Arizona, along with two military C-130 MAFFS aircraft based at Williams Gateway.
"Itís what we think is adequate to deal with that level of risk," said Rey. He said so far this year, 98.5 percent of 805 fires in Arizona were contained in the initial attack phase, but only 93.5 percent of 332 fires were caught in initial attack by this time last year.
But Rowdabaugh said those figures are misleading. The number of fires started by people this year -- typically the worst fires -- is down by 30 percent. The 10-year average for human-caused fires by Mondayís date is 441, but so far humans have only started 319 fires, he said.
Rowdabaugh said large airtankers are the most efficient, effective firefighting tool available. "These other aircraft, they are not exact replacements," he said.
DELAYS IN GETTING AIRCRAFT DEPLOYED
REPORTED IN ALBUQUERQUE
JUNE 23 -- ALBUQUERQUE, NM: Either erroneous information or jurisdictional problems -- or both -- delayed the air attack on the most recent Bosque fire near Belen, New Mexico, according to a report by KRQE-TV out of Albuquerque. Airtankers based there were delayed by an hour on June 18 while winds pushed the wildfire towards homes, and federal fire managers are changing the jurisdiction rules to get firefighting aircraft dispatched more quickly.
When the Bernardo Fire started, it was quickly spotted by a local fire patrol aircraft. But when the crew reported the fire, they were told it was a prescribed burn and was being monitored by a different fire management jurisdiction.
Aircraft were sitting on the ground just minutes away in Albuquerque, but weren't launched till the State Forestry Division arrived on the fire and requested their help.
An hour after the fire was spotted, a SEAT from Albuquerque arrived. Two hours later, a firefighting helicopter arrived.
Because the fire was burning just south of the Albuquerque fire management zone, the Gila Zone headquarters more than 150 miles away in Silver City was in charge. Since then, changes have been made. Effective immediately, the Albuquerque zone is being expanded to encompass all of the Bosque, from Albuquerque to Elephant Butte. Also, when a Bosque fire is reported, aircraft will be immediately dispatched, instead of sending just a recon plane.
NTSB INVESTIGATION UPDATED ON SEAT CRASH IN UTAH
JUNE 23 -- ST. GEORGE, UTAH: The National Transportation Safety Board has updated its information on the investigation into the June 17 crash of an M-18 Dromader airtanker on the Dammeron Complex in southern Utah. Wayne Turner, 58, of Big Sandy, Montana, was killed during firefighting operations on the complex.
The SEAT was under the operational control of the BLM and the NTSB said that aircraft visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the crash. Both ground and airborne eyewitnesses reported that the aircraft had just completed a retardant drop while flying less than 100 feet above downsloping terrain. Immediately after the drop, the aircraft pitched down and descended steeply into wooded terrain. The pilot did not report any problems prior to the accident.
According to BLM representatives, Turner had about 21,000 hours of experience, mostly in crop dusting. He had about 35 hours in the Dromader M-18, of which about 25 hours were flown during simulated and operational firefighting operations during last year's fire season. The pilot also recently had three hours of additional training by the BLM in Safford, Arizona.
The accident flight was the pilot's third or fourth retardant drop of the day; he had completed two drops on the day before the accident. Turner was a relief pilot; the primary pilot, who had flown the plane for three years, did not report any problems with the plane prior to the accident.
According to witnesses, Turner made two dry runs over the intended drop area before releasing the retardant on the third pass. During the drop run, he was off course and released the retardant earlier than desired.
NTSB interviews with Dromader pilots in airtanker operations indicated that some of the pilots were flying the drop run at an airspeed that was slower than the recommended airspeed for a retardant drop. Because of this, the National Program Manager for the SEAT fleet on Saturday halted operation of the 26 contracted Dromaders for two days so that pilots could review operational specifications of the aircraft. The "safety stand down" was lifted on Monday morning, and the Dromader pilots are now continuing firefighting operations.
Eight of the 26 Dromaders are turbine-powered, and the rest are powered by radial engines -- as was Turner's aircraft on the Utah fire. The Dromaders make up about one-third of the federal fleet of 79 SEATs.
A team of NTSB, FAA, DOI, and BLM investigators examined the accident site and wreckage one day after the crash. Evidence indicated that the aircraft impacted the ground in a near vertical, nose-down attitude. No evidence of structural failure, flight control discrepancy, or obvious catastrophic engine failure was noted at the site. The wreckage has been recovered and will be examined in detail in Phoenix, Arizona, by a team of NTSB investigators later this week.
The aircraft maintenance records were on board at the time of the accident and were destroyed in the post-crash fire.
This was the third fatal accident involving a Dromader M-18 airtanker in the past three months. All three planes were owned by Montana-based New Frontier Aviation. The first accident occurred on March 16 near Safford, Arizona, on a practice retardant drop during training exercises. The aircraft was destroyed and the pilot was killed. The plane was loaded with 400 gallons of water, and while turning left to the base leg, the plane's engine surged two or three times. Witnesses said it assumed an "unusual attitude" with the right wing up and the nose down until they lost sight of it behind a small ridgeline.
The second accident occurred on May 22 when another SEAT collided with mountainous terrain, killing the pilot, near Borah Peak, Idaho, in adverse weather conditions. The plane was on a visual flight rules (VFR) cross-country flight from Dillon, Montana, to Boise, Idaho, where it was to begin service for the BLM.
The Color Country Fire Management Area has established a memorial fund for the family of Wayne Turner, the SEAT pilot who was killed on the Dammeron Fire. To donate to this fund, send a check to Dixie Employee Association, Attn: Julianne Green, 1789 N. Wedgewood Lane, Cedar City, Utah, 84720. For more information, call (435)865-3700.
PLEASE DON'T SUE YOUR VFD
JUNE 22 -- EUGENE, OR: Three years ago, a 15-year-old boy slipped and fell while climbing a cliff on the rim of the 300-foot-deep Crooked River Canyon in central Oregon. He fell 25 feet and landed on a narrow ledge. Though badly hurt, he was conscious when volunteers from the Crooked River Ranch Rural Fire Protection District arrived. Rescuers rappelled down the cliff face, using chainsaws to clear their way through thick sagebrush.
Twenty minutes after reaching the injured boy, paramedics had him loaded into a rescue basket and hoisted him out of the canyon. He was helicoptered to a hospital, where he later died.
And his parents are suing the volunteers -- for $9.5 million.
An editorial in today's Register-Guard asserts that rural communities depend on the thousands of men and women serving without pay as firefighters, EMTs, and search and rescue volunteers. The editorial points out that unacceptable and unavoidable results are likely from such lawsuits. "First, there will be an unavoidable tendency to delay, review, second guess or overanalyze situations which by their nature are fluid, unpredictable and require snap decision making."
"Their willingness to face danger for so little is priceless," says the editorial. "We must do everything we can to protect our protectors, or face the possibility of having fewer people on hand to answer our 911 calls."
B.C. WILDFIRE INCREASES FIVE-FOLD
JUNE 21 -- LILLOOET, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA: A British Columbia wildfire grew today to five times its size in about 24 hours; some 200 firefighters are on the fire north of Lillooet, where 3,000 people are on evacuation alert.
The Dickie Creek Fire grew to 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) today from 300 hectares (740 acres) yesterday, and the fire's expected to continue spreading because of extreme heat, dropping humidity levels, and dry weather conditions, according to the Globe and Mail. Local officials have advised that the fire's affected the town's water supply and residents are advised to boil water before using it.
Last year 30,000 residents were forced to leave their homes during one of the most disastrous fire seasons in British Columbia.
NEVADA FIRE DOUBLES IN SIZE
JUNE 21 -- MESQUITE, NV: The Nickel Fire near Mesquite, northeast of Las Vegas, is burning in piñon, brush, and grass, and made serious runs to the north and east yesterday, where it burned into heavier fuels and more than doubled in size.
An AP report this afternoon said that five helicopters and 375 firefighters from federal, state, and county agencies were working the fire, and that the ICP was established today in Bunkerville.
Whalen's Type 2 team is on the fire, and reported yesterday that rough terrain and a lack of water for helicopter support were major concerns. Fire behavior was active through the night, but did quiet down some this morning. The fire burned across the state line into Arizona; it's 20 percent contained at about 8,300 acres.
A large wilderness area bounded by the community of Mesquite and Interstate 15, the Virgin River, Lake Mead, and the Arizona border was closed to off-road and recreational uses because of firefighting operations. The area includes the Virgin Mountain Natural Area and Virgin River Recreation Lands northeast of Las Vegas.
DROMADER SEATS GROUNDED
JUNE 21 -- BOISE, IDAHO: The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Saturday temporarily grounded all PZL M18 Dromader SEATs, forbidding them from flying on federal fires for the rest of the weekend.
The Stand Down Alert said the possibility exists that drop speed minimums have been misinterpreted.
Pilots were asked to review published charts and flight manuals and information on drop speeds at the weights common to fire suppression operations.
The notice said that all affected aircraft will return to service June 21 unless otherwise notified by the National Aviation Office.
ARIZONA FIRE DIES DOWN AFTER
EVACUATING 1,000 RESIDENTS
JUNE 21 -- WHITE RIVER, AZ: A wind-driven fire chased about 1,000 people from their homes in eastern Arizona before improved weather conditions allowed fire crews to get the fire near containment. The China Fire near White River threatened 200 to 300 homes yesterday, and at one point burned to within 100 yards of some houses, according to an AP report.
Chadeen Palmer with the White River Apache Tribe said that residents were told to leave during the afternoon, but were allowed to return by 9 p.m. after crews put in a fire break. The fire was 95 percent contained at 110 acres.
Wind kicked up the fire quickly but then eased. "It just did its thing, curled up and died," Palmer said.
Two airtankers and a helicopter dropped water on the fire.
Reduced winds in west-central New Mexico also helped with an 8,595-acre fire in the Zuni Mountains near Grants; the Sedgwick Fire on the Cibola National Forest started June 12 and was contained yesterday at 8,595 acres.
The Bernardo Fire in New Mexico is 50 percent contained at 354 acres, and the Three Forks Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest west of Alpine, Arizona, is 95 percent contained at 7,905 acres. The Peppin Fire on the Lincoln northeast of Capitan, New Mexico, is at 64,488 acres with 96 percent containment.
DOWNED PILOT A REAL PRO
JUNE 20 -- ST. GEORGE, UTAH: Wayne Turner of Big Sandy, Montana, was killed Thursday when the SEAT he was flying crashed while working the Dammeron Complex in southern Utah.
Turner, 58, a contract pilot with more than 21,000 hours of flying experience, flew for New Frontier Aviation out of Fort Benton, Montana.
Dean Bomgardner at Taylor's Aviation in Fort Benton told the Great Falls Tribune that he's known Turner for 20 years. He said Turner was an instructor and an extremely skilled pilot.
"He did everything by the book," Bomgardner said. "We're going to miss him."
New Frontier Aviation is owned by Andy Taylor of Taylor's Aviation.
Turner taught dozens of Montana pilots to fly during his long and varied career, according to his peers in Montana. He was among the state's few Federal Aviation Administration examiners.
"He was one of the most knowledgeable, dedicated, experienced pilots around," said Chouteau County Commissioner Jim O'Hara, a flight instructor to whom Turner often referred students. "He was very professional, very aviation-oriented, just the kind of guy that wasn't prone to make mistakes."
"It's just shocking," added O'Hara, "I just can't figure it out."
O'Hara said that when Turner wasn't flying a plane, he was in the hangar working on one. He lived across the street from the Big Sandy airport, and had worked as a crop-duster in the Chouteau County area for more than 20 years.
"He was very conscientious about what he did as an ag pilot," said Montana state Senator Jon Tester. "Wayne would always call you up if there was any question about wind directions or things like that."
The southern portion of the Dammeron Complex, at 3,600 acres, hasn't spread much since Thursday morning. Interior islands of fuel continued to burn yesterday, with isolated pockets of torching, but the main portion of the complex has been contained.
CHIEF BELIEVES THERE'S HOPE FOR AIRTANKERS
JUNE 20 -- MISSOULA, MT: Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said yesterday he thinks some of the heavy airtankers will return to service following a review of their safety records. In Missoula for the 50th anniversary rededication of the Forest Service's Aerial Fire Depot, Bosworth said the agency is not trying to end the airtanker program.
"I hope and believe there is a future for airtankers," he said.
Since the May cancellation of federal contracts for heavy airtankers, the Forest Service and BLM have contracted with hundreds of additional helicopters and SEATs to cover the loss, and according to the Missoulian that's cost the feds more than $60 million. But Bosworth said he'd rather have heavy airtankers as part of the mix. He said contractors have been given an opportunity to prove the tankers' airworthiness by providing detailed maintenance and flight records for each aircraft. The Forest Service has contracted with DynCorp Technical Services -- which manages the fleet of S-2s in California -- to evaluate the airtankers and judge their airworthiness.
"Our hope is, we'd like a determination made fairly quickly, yes or no, on these aircraft," Bosworth said. "And if there are airtankers that pass the test, we'd like to get them back in the air this year."
CREWS BATTLING B.C. WILDFIRES
JUNE 20 -- LILLOOET, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA: Fire officials are setting up an operations base today at the Lillooet airport to coordinate suppression efforts on an aggressive wildfire that's got residents of at least five homes on evacuation alert. The Dickie Creek Fire near Lillooet is less than 200 metres (220 yards) from the nearest home, according to canada.com, but officials say it's burning slowly so there is no immediate threat.
The fire is about 1.5 square kilometres (370 acres) in size, burning near the town of Lillooet north of Vancouver. The Calgary Sun reported that heavy smoke was making it difficult to get an exact measure of the fire's size, and steep terrain has made some parts of the fire inaccessible to fire crews.
The Dickie Creek Fire is the largest of 11 fires ignited by lightning storms that rolled through the area Friday night; 44 new fires have been reported in the province since Friday, and eight of the 11 large fires have been contained.
Ground crews were assisted by five airtankers, with two helicopters providing additional support.
Crews are also fighting a large fire in northwestern B.C. near Fort Nelson. That fire's in a remote area but is threatening powerlines. The fires may be an indicator of a severe fire season ahead; British Columbia residents still have fresh memories of the huge fires that burned in the southern interior last year.
THE HOMERS AND JETHROES ARE OUT THERE
JUNE 20 -- HELENA, MT: Private firefighting contractors in Montana and across the West are trying to raise standards in their industry and weed out sloppy operators who give the professionals a bad name.
"The 'Homers and Jethroes' are out there," said Joe King, a former U.S. Forest Service fire boss who is now chief of operations and training at Montana Wildfire Inc. in Bozeman, referring to private contract firefighters who try to cash in on fire season without spending adequate money on training or equipment.
The Missoulian reported that for the last three years, a group of contract firefighters have been trying to set high standards and eliminate the sloppy operators. The Northern Rockies Wildfire Contractors Association recently met in Billings. Curt Milledge, a board member of the Central Montana Contractor's Association who leases fire equipment to the state, said other groups of contractors have formed smaller professional groups aimed at bringing order and standards to the fast-growing industry.
"We need to raise the bar," King said. "We have to instill professionalism."
State and federal fire bosses rely on private contractors like King and Milledge for wildfire suppression work. Bruce Suenram, a Montana City wildfire contractor and president of the NRWCA, said state and federal standards sometimes go out the window when wildfires blow up.
"When there's a big crisis going on, our companies who invest a lot of money in meeting the standards are getting paid the same as the companies who don't," he said. The fire-contracting industry has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. That rapid growth has resulted in a wide range of quality from one contractor to the next, with many new contractors in the business with little experience.
The National Wildfire Suppression Association in Oregon is a national group of fire contractors. Organized as a non-profit, the association has chapters throughout the U.S., with about 10,000 total employees among its members. The NWSA created a national database system that tracks training records for all members and can be accessed by fire agencies to verify identity and training records. Formed in 1990, the NWSA training program meets or exceeds standards of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
MISSOULA JUMPERS CELEBRATE ANNIVERSARY
JUNE 19 -- MISSOULA, MT: Missoula is paying tribute to its wildland firefighting past today, scrambling the Missoula smokejumpers, hosting historic aircraft, and making airtanker drops courtesy of Neptune. The 50th anniversary rededication of the U.S. Forest Service's Aerial Fire Depot runs from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Forest Service complex on U.S. Highway 12 West, and includes tours of the fire cache, Fire Sciences Lab, Northern Rockies Fire Training Center, and the Missoula Technology and Development Center.
The National Weather Service Missoula office and historic aircraft on the ramp are also featured, according to the Missoulian. Four early smokejumper aircraft will be on hand, including a 1928 Travel Air that once belonged to Johnson Flying Service, a Twin Beech, a Ford Tri-Motor, and the DC-3 used to carry jumpers to the tragic Mann Gulch Fire in August 1949.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, BLM director Kathleen Clark, and Bob Sallee, the last remaining survivor of the Mann Gulch blowup, will all be on hand. Neptune Aviation will make airtanker drops, with water colored red, white and blue for the occasion. Neptune is also hosting an open house from 3 to 6 p.m.
A free shuttle bus will run from the University of Montana's Adams Center parking lot beginning at noon and running every 15 minutes until 5 p.m. The shuttle and parking are courtesy of the National Smokejumpers' Association, which is holding a reunion in Missoula this weekend.
NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR WANTS TANKERS BACK
JUNE 19 -- SOCORRO, NM: A fire in the Rio Grande bosque in Socorro County yesterday burned at least two structures; the Bernardo Fire northeast of Socorro had firefighters working through the night. The Albuquerque Journal reported that the fire was 50 percent contained at 300 acres.
Firefighters from Valencia and Socorro counties, along with crews from the state Forestry Division and several other departments were on the fire, along with five aircraft, including two helicopters.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said the fire is under state jurisdiction; he is asking the U.S. Forest Service to resume the use of heavy airtankers.
"Itís those heavy tankers that I really need, that we all need in the West," he said.
KOBTV reported that the Bernardo Fire put up a plume of smoke that was visible for miles.
The New Mexico Boysí Ranch near Las Nutrias was under voluntary evacuation yesterday, as were the communities of Abeytas and Sabinal. The fire's burning in cottonwood and salt cedar.
The Sedgwick Fire on the Cibola National Forest, meanwhile, has grown to 8,595 acres with containment at 75 percent. Winchester's Type 2 team is on the fire, and resources include 11 Type 1 crews, nine Type 2 crews, four helicopters, 17 engines, five dozers, and 17 water tenders. The fire yesterday was torching, smoldering, and creeping, but firefighters say the line is holding.
PILOT KILLED IN UTAH IDENTIFIED
JUNE 18 -- ST. GEORGE, UTAH: The pilot who died when the SEAT he was flying went down late yesterday has been identified as 58-year-old Wayne Turner with New Frontier Aviation out of Fort Benton, Montana. BLM officials said today that Turner had flown for more than 40 years and had logged more than 21,000 hours flying.
The single-engine airtanker crashed yesterday around 6 p.m. after making a drop on the Dammeron Fire. The fire, ignited by lightning on Tuesday, was at 3,600 acres this afternoon. AP reports indicated that Turner was flying a Dromader M-18, one of 76 SEATs on contract with the BLM.
AIRCRAFT BACK ON DUTY IN UKIAH
JUNE 18 -- UKIAH, CA: Aerial firefighting support is back at the Ukiah Air Attack base for fire season 2004.
The Ukiah Daily Journal reported that the two CDF airtankers and the OV-10 air attack plane are back on contract until October 15 -- or later if necessary.
Last year the tankers dropped 370,000 gallons of retardant out of Ukiah, nearly double the five-year average of 200,000 gallons per season.
"The challenging part is every fire is different," said pilot Doug Baker.
"It's not like it's scripted and you can plan where the fires are."
Baker has been flying tankers for 28 years, and his two sons are also fire pilots.
Baker said there will be a lot less help this season -- which promises to be early, hot, and dry.
The Source Fire on the Sierra National Forest tonight was being managed by a Rios's Type 2 team; the fire's about seven miles east of North Fork, California, burning in brush and timber.
Steep, rocky terrain is making fireline construction difficult; fire spread was moderate with the majority of burning activity in drainages.
It was 90 percent contained at 335 acres tonight. The West Fire, meanwhile, was 30 percent contained at 300 acres, burning in the Tehachapi Mountains, started early this afternoon and was threatening a half dozen homes. It's in mop-up status with four helicopters, 19 engines, and two hand crews assigned.
"This is going to be an extremely busy fire season," said Baker, "being that we are operating with about half the number of tankers nationwide."
"The fire conditions are as bad as I have ever seen them."
"Without the nation's fleet of 33 large airtankers, I'll tell you what, we are in trouble," Baker said.
Captain Baker flies Tanker 90, an S-2 owned by the U.S. Forest Service and managed by CDF. T-91, also stationed at the Ukiah Air Attack base, is flown by pilot John Butts.
ENVIRO GROUP RELEASES DOCUMENTS IN
LAWSUIT TO STOP USE OF RETARDANT
JUNE 18 -- GRANTS PASS, OR: The Bush administration ignored advice from government agencies that they should be consulted about the potential harm to threatened and endangered fish from retardant dropped on wildfires, according to documents released in the course of an ongoing lawsuit by an environmental group in Oregon.
The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) obtained the documents, which it released yesterday, from the government as part of its lawsuit to stop retardant use filed last October in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
"The public needs to know that if the judge orders retardant use to be stopped, it's because the government chose to break the law, and it knew better," said Andy Stahl, FSEEE director. "We could avoid that outcome. The way to do that is for the government to agree it has to write an environmental impact statement and involve the public in deciding how we manage fire on public lands, something the government has never done in 100 years."
Some retardant contains sodium ferrocyanide, which under some circumstances can break down and form hydrogen cyanide, which can kill fish. Federal officials banned Fire-Trol retardant in March 2000 after the U.S. Geological Survey found that the retardant, when exposed to water and sunlight, produced amounts of cyanide that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for freshwater organisms. Pilots and firefighters were ordered not to use the retardant within 300 feet of streams or lakes, according to AP reports. But one of the main suppliers of retardant, Fire-Trol Holdings L.L.C., based in Arizona, protested the ban and threatened to sue when faced with a stop-work order under their contract to supply retardant to the government. Federal fire management officials lifted the ban within a month.
One other company, California-based Astaris L.L.C., supplies the fire agencies with retardant. Astaris retardant also will kill fish from ammonia poisoning, but not to the extent of Fire-Trol and cyanide poisoning.
The Associated Press reported that at least three fish kills from accidental retardant spills have occurred. Stahl said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries had told the Forest Service that the Endangered Species Act required them to consult with the agencies before contracting for and using fire retardant on wildfires.
Another document noted that "legal vulnerability is high" if the fire agencies decided against consultation.
In August 2002 a major fish kill occurred on Fall River below the Fall River Hatchery when retardant was inadvertently dropped in the river. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists said all the fish in about four miles of Fall River died after the accidental spill, which occurred during firefighting efforts on a fire that started about a mile southeast of Fall River Hatchery.
In 1995 an estimated 23,000 fish were killed in the South Fork of the John Day River in Oregon. Two years later, retardant killed fish in the North Fork of the John Day, a spawning area for spring chinook. And in 1996, a helicopter experiencing mechanical problems accidentally dumped retardant into Hideaway Creek near Ukiah, killing between 2,000 and 3,000 native redband trout and steelhead.
The High Country News reported last summer that one fish kill in the state of Washington stretched five miles down Omak Creek and wiped out more than 10,000 trout and steelhead.
But retardant actually reaches streams in less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all the retardant drops, according to Alice Forbes, USFS director at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. She said last summer that the agency would likely stop the use of any retardant that releases cyanide by the year 2005.
FATAL CRASH IN UTAH, SEAT PILOT DEAD
JUNE 17 -- ST. GEORGE, UTAH: A single-engine airtanker crashed this evening while fighting a fire in Utah, the third SEAT incident already this season, and the year's first SEAT fatality. The aircraft was on a fire north of St. George when it went down about 6 p.m., BLM spokesman Wendell Peacock said. The AP reported that local television footage showed the aircraft burning on the ground.
KSL-TV reported that one witness said the plane had started to come back west and went down, followed by an explosion. Other aircraft then made drops on the crash scene, trying to extinguish the burning wreckage as rescue teams on the ground converged on the crash site. The wreckage was reportedly scattered over a wide area.
Dispatch personnel in Cedar City this evening had no further information.
The pilot's name has not been released and the cause of the crash is under investigation. Peacock said the 3,660-acre Dammeron Complex was contained about the same time the SEAT went down.
SCOOPERS IN ALASKA
JUNE 17 -- FAIRBANKS, ALASKA: Three replacement aircraft are fighting fires in the state's wildlands since the federal government canceled the contracts of the four heavy tankers normally used in Alaska. Two CL-215s and a SEAT were sent to help deal with the loss.
The Anchorage Daily News reported that the planes have been effective in limited action so far, but they don't make up for the capabilities of the large tankers.
"It's a good supplement to not having anything at all," said Joe Ribar, a staffing officer with the BLM's Alaska Fire Service. The state Division of Forestry still has two large tankers on contract from Canada. But the D-6s can't be used on federal fires because of restrictions imposed by the feds.
The three new aircraft are at the AFS base at Fort Wainwright. They have seen light duty so far, flying fires near Bettles and Minto last weekend.
A lead plane guides the CL-215s on scooping; while the scooper circles the water source, the lead plane flies across the surface, leaving a smoky trail behind to mark the route. The tanker then drops down on the surface, and the pilot opens the two postcard-sized scoops under the belly of the plane.
"We're doing right around 80 to 90 mph when we hit the water, and that stuff just shoots right up there," says pilot Glen Znamirowski. "It takes 10 seconds to fill up."
Two tanks hold 6,000 pounds of water (about 750 gallons) on each side, and pilots can open one or both doors over a fire.
KACHINA VILLAGE WILDFIRE AVERTED
JUNE 17 -- KACHINA VILLAGE, AZ: A mobile home fire in Kachina Village, on the outskirts of Flagstaff, led yesterday to the evacuation of eight other homes when the blaze threatened to turn into a wildfire.
Firfighters were worried that the extreme fire conditions could have turned the structure fire into a forest fire, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. The national forest border is less than a mile from the mobile home park, and the residential area is filled with pine trees.
Last week, the Forest Service and other area agencies declared extreme fire danger for the Flagstaff area because of extraordinarily dry conditions. Fran Honeycutt, who manages the park, said that each spring she sets up large trash bins so that people can clean up the pine needles and debris from their property.
"This year, they didn't do a very good job of it," said Honeycutt. She said she's kept a list of properties that did not do a good job cleaning and she plans to enforce cleanup.
"I'm going to have to send out a letter that says 'Do it or get out.'"
MORE THAN $40 MILLION APPROVED TO REDUCE
FUELS IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY
JUNE 17 -- SAN DIEGO, CA: The San Diego County Board of Supervisors yesterday unanimously approved a program to remove dead, dying and diseased trees in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfires. The Fire Safety and Fuels Reduction Program will be funded with $39.9 million in federal grants to remove fuels in the county's unincorporated areas over the next four years. To augment the USDA grants, the county will add $5 million.
"Two-thirds of the county did not burn in the October fires," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, "and many communities still face extreme fire danger. Today's action will help to significantly ramp up the removal of dead and diseased trees."
According to a county report, as many as 80 percent of trees in some areas of the county have been killed off by prolonged drought and beetle infestations.
Last month, Chuck Bell, a state conservationist, declared an "extreme emergency situation" because of the dead trees and an early fire season. NBCSanDiego reported that the declaration allows the Natural Resources Conservation Service to use federal funds to cover eligible costs associated with the removal of dead trees in San Diego, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, without local governments having to match the grants.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 62,000 acres of insect-killed trees are scattered throughout Palomar Mountain, Harrison Park, Cuyamaca, Laguna Mountain, Descanso, Pine Valley, and areas near Warner Springs.
UTAH FIRE EVACUATES HOMES
JUNE 17 -- DAMMERON VALLEY, UTAH: The night sky was lit up last night north of St. George by a lightning-ignited wildfire that threatened subdivisions along the east side of state Route 18. More than 100 firefighters from the Color Country Interagency Fire Management Area were working on the fire, according to a report by the Salt Lake Tribune.
David Boyd, fire information officer for the Bureau of Land Management in St. George, said three fires were started by lightning at about 6:30 p.m. yesterday. Two of the fires near Dammeron Valley merged, and another fire to the north was threatening the Brookside subdivision south of Enterprise. Part of the subdivision was evacuated as a precaution.
"We're optimistic about the Brookside fire," said Boyd. He said it had burned only 300 acres by 10:30 p.m. but the fire in Dammeron Valley was up to 700 acres. The two fires have been combined and will be managed as the Dammeron Complex by Sexton's Type 1 team. Active fire behavior was observed last night, with torching and spotting three hundred yards ahead of the flame front. The community of Brookside has been evacuated.
Two SEATs and a light helicopter were working the fire, burning in dense sagebrush and piñon-juniper. KUTV news reported that FEMA had approved a fire management grant that will cover 75 percent of the local and state firefighting costs for the fires.
NEW BRUNSWICK FIRE EVACUATES HUNDREDS
JUNE 15 -- LOWER COVERDALE, NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA: High winds yesterday pushed one of the worst fires southeast New Brunswick has seen in two decades. Riverview Fire Chief Doug Hamer said it was the worst fire he'd seen in 20 years, according to a report by canadaeast.com.
The fire in Lower Coverdale burned almost 125 acres, forcing residents from more than 100 homes. The fire started at an airfield between Riverview and Hillsborough.
"The fire was beside the runway, and we tried to stop it but it blew right over us," said the fire chief. "The damn thing's all over the place."
The fire started early in the afternoon and was fought by firefighters from about eight different departments.
The fire was nearly contained last night, and residents were allowed to return home, thanks to the efforts of 90 firefighters, dozers, and eight airtankers -- six planes from New Brunswick that were on the fire all afternoon and two from Quebec that arrived around suppertime. One of the bombers was a TBS Avenger, a plane that was called out of retirement for the fire.
Stephen Tulle, Natural Resources' regional fire management ranger based in Miramichi, said winds were gusting at 63 km/hour (almost 40 mph) at the Moncton airport yesterday and they may have been even higher in Lower Coverdale.
"This was a wind-driven fire," he said. "It was overpowering. When the pilots first arrived they were having trouble assessing their drops." Tulle estimated the fire at 70 percent containment late last night.
JUNE 14 -- SAN FRANCISCO, CA: Much of the discussion about heavy airtankers fighting fire has flurried around ideas about safety since the May cancellation of federal contracts for heavy airtankers. Recently released statements from the feds, carefully crafted by public affairs folks, wave the safety flag and wax on about how helicopters and SEATs will fill the bill, and glibly remind the public that fires are fought on the ground and not from the air.
That sorta puts the lie to what we've been doing for decades, but at least the federal agency heads are talking publicly about the issue now.
Press releases issued from Boise and Washington, DC are routinely published by many of the print media, especially in the tanker towns -- cities across the West that have hosted airtanker bases for years. And many of them run the "we did it for safety" commentaries without comment. But an editorial in today's San Francisco Chronicle really nailed the issue when it pointed out that the contracts were canceled not for safety reasons but because the NTSB said the federal agencies were liable for accidents.
The editorial says the federal agencies need a new approach to operating a tanker fleet. "They need to set modern requirements for the planes, their maintenance and operation; phase out aging aircraft; and standardize training for pilots and mechanics."
And they quoted Mike Padilla, CDF chief of aviation. "We're already feeling the loss of the heavy tankers," he said; "we could really use them now on the Gaviota Fire."
A May 21 notice from the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group issued instructions to dispatchers and Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs) on the use of aviation resources for the current fire season. "The actions taken are not intended to send a message that the federal agencies will not support our state cooperators," they wrote. However, the GACCs were cautioned that airtankers contracted by individual states -- such as the Butler tankers in Oregon -- cannot be used on federal lands, federal firefighters are not to assume operational control of those airtankers (they must remain under state "operational control"), and federal leadplanes are not allowed to assist these airtankers. The tankers can, however, load out of federal tanker bases.
These restrictions impose a nasty dilemma on the incident commander who finds himself or herself in a situation where tankers are available but can't be used. "On mixed jurisdiction or mixed (state/fed) incident management teams using unauthorized airtankers," said the MAC Group, "state agencies will be responsible for ordering, operational control, and liability associated with those resources."
The MAFFS C-130 aircraft are approved for such fires, and they do have leadplane escorts available -- they are in fact mandatory. The MAC Group rationale for this? They're military aircraft and the Department of Defense has liability, not the Forest Service -- even if it's a Forest Service leadplane with a Forest Service pilot. "The NTSB report does not apply to DOD aircraft because they do not fall under the jurisdiction of FAA airworthiness rules, DOD is the operator and not USDA/DOI," says the MAC Group.
Somehow that doesn't sound like "safety is our first priority." That sounds distinctly like "liability is our first priority."
The Chronicle editorial rightly criticized the Forest Service about its new contracts for helicopters and SEATs. "As firefighters will tell you, a helicopter isn't an airtanker. Each has a role in battling wildland blazes. As California heads into what promises to be a long, hot summer, there should be a way to ready the complete array of firefighting tools for the fight against the common enemy -- fire."
INSURERS RELUCTANT TO RESRICT POLICIES
JUNE 12 -- SACRAMENTO, CA: Wildfires last fall in southern California were the most expensive in history for the insurance industry, and with another bad season predicted for this year, insurance companies are urging forest-dwelling homeowners to clear brush, trim trees, and take other steps to protect their homes.
So far, though, most insurance companies haven't raised rates or imposed restrictions on homeowners. And according to an AP report, insurers are just hoping that the massive fires of 2003 were a fluke.
"It was an anomaly of sort," said Bill Mellander, spokesman for Allstate, of the California fires. "A fire event of that size you think is not going to be an everyday event."
Insurers processed more than 19,000 claims and paid out $2.04 billion in damages from last October's Cedar and Old fires. That was almost half of all the premiums collected in California the year before. Insurance companies are paying attention to fire forecasts, and they are encouraging homeowners to create defensible space around homes. But they are not making it a requirement of coverage.
Some Colorado insurers, however, take the precautions a step further.
State Farm last year, for example, began requiring 24,000 homeowners in fire-prone areas of six Western states ó Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming ó to fix hazards on their property. Policies could be dropped if homeowners don't cooperate.
And Colorado Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. has always required homeowners in fire-prone areas to clear brush around their homes.
Foresters and fire managers have encouraged insurance companies for years to require homeowners to clear brush and trees and to use fire-resistant building materials, especially on roofs.
John Garamendi, California's insurance commissioner, says he doesn't understand why more companies don't require those precautions.
"It should be that way," he said. "Some companies do it that way and other companies just look at maps and don't bother looking at the house. They don't have a clue where the house is or what the risks are. I think that's wrong."
THREE FORKS FIRE 15 PERCENT CONTAINED
JUNE 11 -- EAGAR, AZ: Nearly 600 firefighters are working today to keep the 5,800-acre Three Forks Fire from reaching the community of Nutrioso in eastern Arizona; the fire was at 15 percent containment last night and was still three or four miles from the edge of town. Though the fire's size was pegged yesterday at over 7,200 acres, that number was ratcheted back down this morning after better mapping efforts resulted in a more accurate assessment of the fire's size. Fire managers said they've established a trigger point about a mile from town for evacuation orders, should the fire come within range of Nutrioso. Bob Dyson on Kvale's Type 2 team said 25 engines were at Nutrioso in case the fire reaches the trigger point. About 250 buildings are threatened.
An AP report said that residents had evacuated livestock from the town to nearby Springerville and other communities.
Winds of 40 to 50 mph on Wednesday challenged firefighters, blowing embers across firelines and grounding airtankers. Winds caused spotting of up to a quarter mile from the main fire. Helicopters have been dipping from Sierra Blanca Lake to provide air support for ground crews, and Pete Schwab, air operations director for the team managing the fire, said they expected better weather conditions today.
GAVIOTA FIRE CONTAINED
JUNE 11 -- GAVIOTA, CA: A wildfire that burned 7,440 acres of brush and destroyed one home in Santa Barbara County was at full containment last night; cooler temperatures and lighter winds helped more than 1,300 firefighters on the lines of the Gaviota Fire. A quarter of the fire was on the Los Padres National Forest.
An AP story reported that 17 firefighters experienced minor injuries, including 13 who were treated for poison oak; a CDF report put the number of injuries at 26.
The fire started last weekend in the Gaviota Pass north of Santa Barbara, burning across narrow canyons and steep hillsides covered with chaparral. One home was destroyed and three outbuildings were damaged. The fire forced evacuation of hundreds of residents when strong winds pushed the fire, and it resulted in the intermittent closure of U.S. 101.
The Los Padres reported that winds picked up again yesterday afternoon, but that crews were working on suppressing small spot fires within the firelines and finishing hand and dozer lines around the perimeter. A number of resources were released, but those remaining today are working mop-up and patrol. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department will assume management of the fire, which has been under Unified Command, on Saturday morning.
WINDS PUSH ARIZONA FIRE ANOTHER 3,000 ACRES
JUNE 10 -- EAGAR, AZ: Nutrioso, an eastern Arizona town of about 500 residents, was smoked in last night from the Three Forks Fire, and residents were being warned that they might have to evacuate if the fire spread to the town.
At 5,500 acres last night with about 10 percent containment, the fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona was pushed by winds of up to 40 mph.
"Everyone I've talked to is more interested in getting their animals out than anything else," said Mike Rising, a retired Forest Service employee who has lived in the area 15 years.
"You can't see it because there's a big ridge between the fire and here, but we've been kind of nervous about what's going on."
The fire was still four miles from town last night.
"This wind is just ripping here," Rising told the Arizona Daily Star. "Right now it's wait and see ... It's anybody's ballgame when the wind goes."
North of the fire in Springerville, winds were clocked at 20 to 30 mph. Gusts near 40 were recorded yesterday afternoon.
Kvale's Type 2 team is on the fire, which started near Big Lake on June 8.
Resources on the fire include eight Type 1 crews, three Type 2 crews, five helicopters, 16 engines, three dozers, and three water tenders.
The fire yesterday was torching with short crown runs and lots of spotting. Two C-130 MAFFS units were grounded yesterday because of high winds; west/southwest winds of 10-15 mph are expected for today, with gusts to 30 mph.
NEW ARIZONA FIRE UP TO 3,500 ACRES
JUNE 09 -- EAGAR, AZ: A fast-moving wildfire in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona grew overnight to 3,500 acres, according to a report by KVOA-TV; it was estimated last night at just 350 acres.
The Three Forks Fire is on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest east of Big Lake near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Early yesterday afternoon, resources on the fire included one SEAT, a helicopter, a dozer, and other local resources. Bob Dyson on the Apache-Sitgreaves said resources assigned later included 140 firefighters, four SEATs, three helicopters, five engines, and four dozers. Hotshots from Heber and Fort Apache were committed last night; two more hotshot crews were on order.
The AP reported that two MAFFS units based at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa each dropped two loads of retardant on the fire.
Another AP report said that crews on the fire worked on building line and burning out during the night, but that progress would depend on the winds today. Dorman McGann with the initial team on the fire said winds of 30 to 40 mph were expected, with gusts up to 60 mph. "We're hoping that does not happen," McGann said.
According to the Southwest Coordination Center, the fire was 30 percent contained this morning. The fire's expected to spread north today; a Type 2 team has been ordered.
In New Mexico, the 51,685-acre Peppin Fire was 80 percent contained, and crews were securing the western flank and out on patrol for hot spots. Demobilization is under way; the fire has burned 12 cabins since it started on May 15.
OREGON'S AIRTANKER SITUATION UNCERTAIN
JUNE 07 -- KLAMATH FALLS, OR: A wildfire this summer on state or private land will probably have heavy airtanker support, thanks to a state contract for heavy airtankers. But what if a fire takes off on federal land?
No one knows.
The recent airtanker contract cancellation by the Forest Service and DOI means the two airtankers that were stationed at Kingsley Field last year aren't there now. And officials at the Klamath Falls Interagency Fire Center are waiting to hear whether any of the airtankers will be approved for a return to firefighting.
"As far as right now, there is nothing sitting on the ramp," said Randall Bailey, dispatch coordinator.
Last year, the center moved into its new $4.3 million facility on the east side of Kingsley Field. According to a report by the Herald and News, the tanker base has three concrete pads big enough for a C-130 and a retardant pumping system that can fill large tankers at a rate of 500 gallons a minute. Don Cavin, tanker base manager, says changes will be needed if they have more SEATs assigned at the base. The pumps push the retardant too fast for the smaller tanks to handle.
Over the last five years, the base has supported tankers on about 150 missions a year, Cavin said.
The Oregon Department of Forestry will have two DC-6s from Canada and two DC-7s from Redmond under contract this summer. But the state-contracted planes won't be dropping retardant on federally managed lands, and federal lead planes can't be used to guide state-contracted tankers over fires.
EVACUATED RESIDENTS RETURN HOME
JUNE 07 -- GAVIOTA, CA: Hundreds of southern California residents who were evacuated yesterday from the Gaviota Fire area were allowed to return home last night, according to a FOX news report. The fire, in Santa Barbara County, resulted in the temporary closure of Highway 101 yesterday; it was 20 percent contained this morning at 7,550 acres.
Nearly 1,000 personnel were on the fire this morning, with resources including 31 crews, 72 engines, four CDF airtankers, 15 helicopters, and five dozers.
Barry Peckham with the Los Padres National Forest said the fire destroyed one home and damaged some outbuildings. Two oil refineries were threatened, and train trestles owned by Union Pacific were damaged.
The fire threatened 150 homes in the Hollister Ranch community, after it took off Saturday from the Gaviota Pass north of Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, and CDF are operating under Unified Command on suppression efforts.
HELP SOUGHT FOR PRINEVILLE HOTSHOT
JUNE 04 -- PRINEVILLE, OR: Matt Taylor with the Prineville IHC is battling cancer and needs financial as well as spiritual support, according to Dan Fiorito with the Union Hotshots. "The Union IHC is auctioning off the very first presentation grade Union Hotshot belt buckle, serial #0001G," says Fiorito. "The belt buckle is brass with silver and gold plating, and will be a beautiful piece of collectable firefighting art."
The fundraiser for Taylor, who is a former Union Hotshot, is for medical expenses and support of his family. "We are placing a reserve price of $75.00 as a minimum bid," says Fiorito. "All proceeds will be placed (in the purchaser's name) into Matt's Bank of America donation account."
To bid on the buckle and help Taylor, contact the Union Hotshots at (541)962-8541 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or check the online auction page. Bids will be accepted through July 9 and the winner will receive the buckle within 30 days.
Taylor is one of the senior firefighters on the Prineville Hotshots crew. "About six weeks ago he underwent exploratory brain surgery," said Prineville superintendent Lance Honda, "and was found to have an aggressive cancerous tumor." His physician said Taylor has six months to one year to live. He is undergoing chemotherapy and doing what he can to fight the cancer; the chemotherapy runs $2,200 per month. His insurance company is willing to cover half that expense. Taylor's also incurred other medical expenses that his GS-5 salary doesn't come close to covering. The Prineville IHC has opened a donation account with Bank of America to help allay the cost of the chemotherapy and other medical expenses. This account may also double as an education account for Taylor's daughter Jordan, who last month turned one year old.
"The account number with Bank of America is 2884010802," says Honda, "and if you are in another state you can go to your local Bank of America and use the account number OR2-134-01-01 to make your deposit. Any amount, no matter how small, will be very helpful and appreciated very much."
SOUTHWEST FIRE ROUNDUP
JUNE 04 -- ALBUQUERQUE, NM: The Tank Fire on the Coronado, which started yesterday, was at 600 acres this morning with about 30 percent containment, according to Crolly's Type 3 team, which is assigned to the fire. Two Type 1 crews, a helicopter, a dozen engines, and five water tenders are assigned. The fire yesterday was torching in brush.
The Peppin Fire on the Lincoln National Forest was 45 percent contained this morning at 44,500 acres. Burning northeast of Capitan, New Mexico, the fire's being managed by Bateman's Type 2 team. Resources include 11 Type 1 crews, two Type 2 crews, 5 helicopters, 16 engines, three dozers, and 16 water tenders. Fire behavior moderated some yesterday with favorable weather, and no significant torching or runs were observed. Burnout operations from both ground and air were attempted yesterday, but results were mixed because of high relative humidity. The fire is expected to move east and northeast today.
On the Apache/Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona, the KP Fire south of Alpine is 90 percent contained at 16,150 acres. Three Type 1 crews, two helicopters, and four engines are working the fire.
A report in the Arizona Daily Sun said the Agua Fire near Black Canyon City was contained yesterday afternoon.
Investigators said the fire started in a ravine behind a bank, where it spread to two mobile homes and a recreational vehicle. Forty people were evacuated from nearby homes, and about 100 structures were threatened.
The Montezuma Fire south of Sierra Vista was contained at 240 acres. An AP report noted that the fire likely was human-caused because lightning has not struck there recently and the area is known as a hot spot for illegal immigrants crossing the border.
RE-CERTIFYING AIRTANKERS NOT LIKELY IN TIME FOR SOUTHWEST FIRE SEASON
JUNE 04 -- TUCSON, AZ: Plans to get airtankers back online for fire duty would likely come too late for Arizona's fire season, according to a report by the Arizona Daily Star.
"It will have a tremendous impact if they can get those planes back in the air," said Dean McAlister, fire management officer for the Coronado National Forest. "I just really don't think any kind of a certification process could happen quick enough for us here, though it may really help states like Oregon, Washington and Montana."
Fire conditions are severe enough in Arizona and New Mexico that nearly 50 percent of the nation's hotshot crews are now in the Southwest. Extra SEATs, civilian and military helicopters, and the C-130 MAFFS units currently in the Southwest aren't seen as an adequate replacement, though, for the heavy airtankers.
The helicopters and SEATs just aren't that effective in the desert Southwest, McAlister said. "They carry a small volume of water and their flight speeds are slow enough that it takes them a long time to do their turnarounds out here," he said.
Big tankers like the four DC-4s owned by Tucson's Ardco Inc. will be missed, said aircraft inspector Tim Amalong, president of Tucson-based Velocity Air Inc.
"I don't think a bunch of smaller aircraft will fill that void, not at all," Amalong said.
Reinspecting and recertifying tankers will most likely take longer than three weeks, McAlister said, and the Southwest fire season often draws to a close with the arrival of monsoons in July. Officials said Wednesday that they have worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop guidelines to assess the planes' airworthiness. Ardco's owners say the new standards are just one more chapter in the government's shell game.
"We get the feeling that every time we meet the criteria they ask for, they go and raise the bar on us," said Meegan Garrett. "We're going to be able to meet the new standards, but we just think they're going to raise them on us again."
After two tanker accidents in 2002, the Forest Service contracted with Sandia National Laboratories to develop a safety oversight plan for the country's 33 heavy airtankers. Sandia visited every aircraft operator and came up with recommendations, among them a requirement that each of the planes receive an in-depth inspection. The majority of these inspections were completed by Sandia and the FAA in 2003.
"The Sandia report came out before the fire season last year and we had to meet all the recommendations before we could fly the season, and we did," Garrett said. "Now, they're going to put in even more criteria in the middle of fire season."
Legislators need to get the tankers back in the air as soon as possible, said U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona. "I believe the Forest Service's plan to replace these tankers is more expensive, more dangerous, and ultimately less effective," Flake said. He is drafting legislation that would certify tankers that met FAA requirements as of May 31, 2004.
NEW ARIZONA FIRE TAKES OFF
JUNE 03 -- BLACK CANYON CITY, AZ: A wildfire burning in the Agua Fria riverbed has burned two trailers and a bus and is threatening about 100 other structures. Cliff Pearlberg with the State Land Department said firefighters from Black Canyon City, Mayer, Phoenix, and Prescott were called in along with multiple aircraft, including SEATs and a helicopter.
The AP reported that the Agua Fire was burning brush and cottonwoods; the fire caused downed powerlines and residential propane tank explosions. The cause is under investigation.
KPHO-TV reported that the fire started when powerlines fell on a mobile home.
MORE RESOURCES HEADED FOR ARIZONA FIRE
JUNE 03 -- SIERRA VISTA, AZ: Firefighters are hoping to keep a wildfire just north of the U.S.-Mexico border from climbing into the Huachuca Mountains; the Tucson Citizen reported yesterday that 60 firefighters and six aircraft were working on the fire near Coronado National Memorial south of Sierra Vista.
Another 100 firefighters were ordered for the Montezuma Fire, named for the nearby Montezuma Pass. The fire was burning through grasslands and savanna oak in an area between the pass and the Mexican border. If the fire climbs into the steep slopes of the Huachucas, it will burn into heavier fuels such as ponderosa pine.
Two Type 3 helicopters, two MAFFS units, two SEATs, and an air attack crew were on the fire yesterday. The fire was 20 percent contained at 240 acres this morning. According to the Southwest Coordination Center the fire involves several different agencies and poses the potential for international exchange with Mexico on a fire just over the line. The fire yesterday was active on all flanks, making upslope runs and torching in oak and juniper. It's expected to grow to the north if pushed by southwest winds; the forecast includes a chance of dry thunderstorms.
Another fire reported this morning is the Agua Fire, burning along the river bottom near Black Canyon City. It is threatening structures and evacuations are in progress.
SENATORS SPANK REY ON AIRTANKER MESS
JUNE 02 -- WASHINGTON, DC: Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon today slammed what he called a "responsibility vacuum" that led to the cancellation of contracts for heavy airtankers as the 2004 fire season begins. Wyden says he wants the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Forest Service to work together on a reliable safety system for all aircraft used to fight wildfires.
So far no deal from the three of them.
Wyden addressed his concerns to representatives of the NTSB, FAA, and USFS at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
"This was a classic responsibility vacuum," said Wyden, "where everyone thought someone else was in charge of ensuring these airtankers were safe for wildfire fighting." Borrowing a phrase from the Forest Service's Tony Kern, he added, "Unfortunately for the communities that depend on them, at the end of the day, nobody was really in control."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who chaired the hearing, was not the only Congressman present who berated Mark Rey, Underscretary with the Department of Agriculture, for his drawn-out responses during the hearing. "We are told these cancellations were in response to a Safety Recommendation Letter issued by the NTSB that reviewed three accidents involving firefighting aircraft," said McCain. "However, it should be pointed out that the key recommendation in the NTSB letter was not for the agencies to cancel contracts. It was that the contracting agencies should further develop a maintenance and inspection program to ensure the safe operation of these planes. Rather than instituting such a safety system, however, the agencies involved simply canceled the contracts for the aircraft."
"The land management agencies are responsible for the safety of aviators, firefighters, and the public during firefighting operations and based upon the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board," said Rey. "There was no other alternative."
Wyden also insisted, according to a bend.com report, that the NTSB, FAA, and USFS must ensure in the short term that there is an effective and equivalent wildland fire suppression force for this fire season. Wyden says he'll follow up in two weeks, when the same three agencies will appear before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which Wyden is a member.
McCain pointed out that the Forest Service had contracted with Sandia National Laboratories to develop a safety oversight plan for these aircraft. Sandia then visited every aircraft operator and developed a number of recommendations, including a requirement that each of the 33 aircraft still under contract would undergo an in-depth inspection. Most of the inspections were completed by Sandia and the FAA in 2003, but McCain pointed out that the NTSB report did not recommend cancellation of the federal contracts.