Following record-low snowfalls and extensive droughts, fierce wildfires are raging across the American West. This past week President Obama officially declared the burning territory to be in a state of ‘national disaster.’ In Colorado, the massive High Park Fire – the worst blaze in the state’s history – has already destroyed 346 homes and police have reported one death and several missing persons in various fire-stricken towns. Meanwhile, residents in Arizona, Utah, and other Rocky Mountain states are fleeing their homes in droves.
In the midst of this crisis, the federal government’s role in our nation’s depleted fire fighting capabilities is coming to light. Some expert, including James E. Hall - a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who led a panel in 2002 that examined the aging tankers - say that a lack of federal funding has left the U.S. Forest Service’s fleet of air tankers – crucial for dropping water and flame retardant over smoldering treetops – ill-equipped to battle the inferno. A decade ago, the fleet numbered 44 planes, yet only nine heavy air tankers now remain to take on a wildfire season expected to last through the fall. What’s more is that this miniscule fleet is extremely outdated -- the newest plane in the group is 51 years old while the oldest was built while Eisenhower still occupied the oval office. Despite a myriad of mechanical problems over the years leading to major safety concerns, it is only now, as fires threaten to incinerate parts of the American West, that the sad state of the nation's aerial fleet is truly revealed.
No one is taking the heat quite like the Obama administration, who opted last year to cancel a contract with a private company that provided roughly one third of the tankers in Forest Service’s already-depleted fleet. Scrambling to recover from that fatal, budget-saving error, President Obama signed emergency legislation last week borrow seven planes from Canada and provide $24 million for new aerial tanker contracts. However, wildfire experts are calling the move little more than a “dog-and-pony” rescue effort as the planes won’t be ready any time soon and the money is also unlikely to come through before next year. They insist that the air tanker fleet requires at least an additional 50 planes in order to respond quickly to current threats nationwide. This would be a crucial step towards ensuring that small fires are extinguished before they become mega-blazes.
Despite firefighters’ best efforts, the High Park Fire and others in Utah, Montana, and Wyoming remain less than 10 percent contained. Clearly, the downsized aerial fleet needs all of the immediate assistance it can get. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has the resources to supply the Forest Services with the planes it needs to save thousands of homes and countless acres of pristine forested land. Sign the petition demanding that Obama take more action immediately. His current effort is clearly not enough and there are still months left in this year’s wildfire season. We can’t take the risk of putting Americans lives in danger any longer.