Gov. Napolitano Wants Grounded Tankers Ready For Fire Season

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Gov. Janet Napolitano is waging a campaign to get the air tankers that were grounded last year airborne in time to help during Arizona's early fire season.

The governor, a Democrat, has written letters to the state's mostly Republican congressional delegation asking for their assistance in putting pressure on the U.S. Forest Service to act promptly.

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Gov. Janet Napolitano

"Basically, the Forest Service has decided not to decide anything until May, and they made the decision not to decide without even talking with the governors or the states," Napolitano told the Roundup Thursday.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was canceling contracts for all 33 of the large air tankers used in fighting fires across the West, without telling states or providing a back-up plan. The grounded tankers are considered to be some of the most effective weapons for fighting forest fires.

The federal government killed the contracts over worries about the safety of some of the aging planes used to fight large fires.

Because the contracts were canceled in May, the state was left scrambling to find other methods of fighting fires.

"In Arizona, we typically are well into fire season by May," Napolitano said. "In fact, we usually start up in March. The fire season starts in the south and moves north over the course of the summer."

In her letters to the Arizona congressional delegation, Napolitano cautioned not to be misled by recent wet weather.

"The rains and snows this winter do not eliminate the potential for another severe wildland fire season, and we must make sure Arizona is prepared to react and respond," she wrote.

Some of the grounded air tankers date to World War II. The decision to ground them last year came after a report by the National Transportation Safety Board that the aircrafts' safety and airworthiness could not be ensured. Seven people were killed in three air tanker crashes between 1994 and 2002.

While the heavy air tankers are of immediate concern, Napolitano told the Roundup federal support is lacking in other areas as well.

"We need more coordination, we need more assets, and we need the Forest Service to quit making unilateral decisions in D.C.," she said. "For Arizona and New Mexico, that's a disaster."

The governor singled out Payson as a community that should be especially concerned about the situation.

"This air tanker situation is particularly relevant to you-all, given the Willow Fire last year," she said. "It hurt (fighting the Willow) because that big air support is really useful for the first line of attack. We did ultimately get some heavy air tanker support from New Mexico, and that helped the Willow (from getting much larger)."

Napolitano also expressed her concerns in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. The Forest Service is a branch of the Agriculture Department.

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