The U.S. Forest Service’s fleet of firefighting air tankers has dropped from 44 in 2002 to eight, even as the danger from major wildfires has soared.
Worse yet, the Forest Service has no clear plan to bolster its aging, expensive fleet of tankers, a Government Accountability Office study has concluded.
The Forest Service wants to modernize its air tanker fleet by buying new aircraft rather than contracting for the crucial firefighting planes. However, the program remains plagued by a lack of coordination with other federal agencies and a lack of information on the safety and efficiency of the planes, the GAO concluded.
The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have undertaken no fewer than nine major studies of the issue without answering key questions, the GAO report determined.
In the meantime, the fleet of air tankers has declined dramatically due to the age of the airplanes and several fatal crashes.
The news comes as federal spending on wildfires this year crosses the $1 billion mark, with nine major fires burning in Idaho and elsewhere. That includes a 98-square-mile fire near Yosemite National Park that threatens 2,000 homes.
Federal agencies have reported a total of 33,000 fires nationally this year. Over the past decade, the annual cost of fighting fires on federal lands has averaged $1.4 billion.
This week, the Forest Service reported 11 fires in Arizona, including a 1,000-acre blaze near Superior. Arizona has actually passed through the worst of the fire
season, thanks to the arrival of the monsoon. The Forest Service has shifted to letting most fires burn through the damp fuel loads on the ground rather than actively fighting them as it did in the tinder-dry months of May and June, which also brought the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters battling to save a subdivision near Yarnell.
Arizona’s U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake issued a joint statement welcoming the GAO criticism of the Forest Service management of its tanker fleet.
“Nationwide, but especially in states like Arizona, the number and severity of wildfires is expected to increase ... The last thing we need is to study this issue indefinitely. There have already been nine different studies on air tankers since 1995 and GAO notes it could be years before enough data is collected to fully analyze each aircrafts’ performance capabilities. Americans deserve better than to hear that more research is needed while wildfires destroy their homes and firefighters risk their lives.”
The GAO study found that the Forest Service and the Interior Department don’t effectively communicate with each other, the aircraft vendors or the U.S. military, which has provided surplus tankers in the past.
The GAO report said, “The studies and strategy documents did not incorporate information on the performance and effectiveness of firefighting aircraft, primarily because neither agency collected the data. While government reports have long called for the Forest Service and Interior to collect aircraft performance information, neither agency did so until 2012 when the Forest Service began a data collection effort. However, the Forest Service has collected limited data on large air tankers and no other aircraft, and Interior has not initiated a data collection effort.”
NASA scientists predict that the number of wildfires will increase sharply in coming decades as average temperatures rise and droughts grow more frequent — especially in the West.
As a result, disastrous fire seasons like 2012 will occur three or four times a decade, rather than once a decade, NASA scientists estimate. Last year, 9.1 million acres burned, the third-highest total on record — and just a little behind the 9.9 million total in 2006 and the 9.3 million acre total in 2007.
The rising number and size of the wildfires has pumped millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a vicious circle of planet-warming effects. Carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires in the western U.S. have doubled in the past 25 years, according to NASA estimates.
Between 1984 and 1995 emissions from wildfires averaged 8.8 million tons annually. Between 1996 and 2008, the average jumped to 22 million tons — a 240 percent increase.
The dramatic rise in wildfires stems from both longer, deeper droughts and the decades-long accumulation of small trees and brush across millions of acres of forest. The Forest Service has been forced to actually divert money from forest thinning and restoration projects that could prevent or contain wildfires to its firefighting budget.