Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, frustrated by the federal decision to ground 33 firefighting air tankers, has sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman asking that the fleet be immediately and safely restored or replaced.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture – U.S. Forest Service announced its decision to terminate contracts with companies that operate 33 heavy air tankers in western states. Although smaller planes and helicopters will continue to be available for firefighting in Arizona, the loss of the tankers reportedly will profoundly increase the cost of fire suppression during a potentially devastating wildfire season.
“The need for rapid and effective initial response to wildland fires cannot be understated,” wrote Napolitano. “Unfortunately, your decision not only was untimely, it also was made without consultation with the governors most affected and without any contingency plan in place.”
The Governor acknowledged the concern regarding airworthiness of the aircraft and safety of the pilots, but pointed out that the problems have been under investigation since at least 2002. The Governor wrote, “The past two years should have been spent identifying and directing resources to improve the fleet and secure new and reliable aircraft. Now, we are faced with a potentially horrendous wildland fire season and an untimely decision to ground all large airtankers. Your delay in this matter is unfathomable.”
Because of the continuing drought, and the devastating effects of the bark beetle infestation, Arizona reportedly faces the potential for one of the worst fire seasons in its history.
For example, last year, the Aspen fire near Tucson destroyed approximately 84,750 acres including the town of Summerhaven, with a total firefighting cost to Arizona of approximately $2.4 million ($17 million total cost). Conditions this year are reportedly no better.
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