Editorial: Fire tanker reduction hard to fathom

The first really warm weather of the season this week brought thoughts of the really hot weather to come, and that, naturally, leads to apprehension about fire season 2018. Will we be in for another smoke-filled August? If fires start, will the resources be there to respond quickly?

A hearing on the Forest Service’s budget this week before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee raised doubts about Forest Service policy toward large air tankers — an important piece of the initial response to new fires.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked the acting chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about plans to reduce the number of on-call planes from 20 to 13 this summer. That means there will be fewer large tankers on what are known as “exclusive-use” contracts — ready and waiting to respond when fires break out. If more planes are needed, fire officials will have to rely on “call-when-needed” vendors. Those contractors will have up to 48 hours to respond under Forest Service rules.

Last year — when there were 20 exclusive-use tankers under contract — fire managers made 371 requests for air tankers that were not filled because the available tankers were being used on other fires. There were also 20 tankers in 2016.

This year, there will be only 13 planes — and the call-when-needed backups can take two days to mobilize.

If the cutback were saving money — something Christiansen alluded to in her testimony to the committee — it might be defensible. But call-when-needed tankers cost significantly more per day and per hour than the exclusive-use planes. If this year’s fire season is anything like last year’s, any savings from reducing the number of exclusive-use tankers will go — pardon the expression — up in smoke.

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