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Air Support To Northwest Wildfires Could Be Delayed This Year


Senator Maria Cantwell questioned the acting head of the U.S. Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, this week. Among the senator's top concerns: there may not be enough air support for fires in the West this year.

Cantwell said during a meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that air tankers can catch wildfires before they grow into expensive catastrophes. Aircraft can douse wildfires with retardant or use water dipping buckets.

So, she said, the new Forest Service policy reducing the number of on-call planes from 20 to 13 this season doesn’t make sense. The agency is also giving air support contractors more time -- 48 hours -- to respond to a wildfire. 

Cantwell says the first few hours of fighting wildfires are often the most important. She used the example of Washington state’s Carlton Complex Fire, that was started by lightning and grew very quickly back in 2014.

"With the number of fire starts, I understand the Forest Service trying to be economical," Cantwell said. "But how does it add up if those fire starts turn into more explosive fires?”

Christiansen countered that her agency can deploy the planes effectively. Forest Service managers plan to meet with Cantwell’s office later this week. 

Last year fire managers throughout the nation placed  371 orders for air tankers, which were not filled because tankers were already busy on other fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.