In the face of what is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season in the Southwest, the U.S. Forest Service is adding four additional aircraft to its next-generation firefighting fleet, bringing the total amount of aircraft to 21 large airtankers (with opportunities to add additional aircraft, if needed) and more than 100 helicopters. The new aircraft will enter service in the coming weeks and support over 10,000 firefighters for the 2014 wildfire season.
"We continue to increase and modernize the fleet of aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities," said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. "These new planes will combine with our existing fleet to support to our heroes on the ground fighting wildfires to keep our resources and communities safe."
The Forest Service is bringing into duty the first time this fire season a second DC10, and three BAe-146s. The DC10 cruises at 430 mph and can carry up to 11,600 gallons of retardant. Both the BAe-146 and a C130 originally brought on last fall cruise at roughly 350 mph and can carry more than 3,000 gallons of retardant. Eight C130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) are also now completing their recertification and training for this season. The Forest Service will also bring additional large airtankers in from Canada if needed. Airtankers drop fire retardant that reduces the intensity and rate of spread of wildfires so that firefighters can construct firelines safely.
Climate change, pests and disease, and suburban sprawl have combined to portend more severe wildfire seasons in recent years. Over the last three decades, fire season lengths have increased by 60-80 days and annual acreages burned have more than doubled to over 7 million acres annually. In addition, growing housing development in forests has put more people and houses in harms' way, also making firefighting efforts more expensive.
Earlier this year, the Forest Service announced that it was projected to exceed its annual firefighting budget in July, two months before the end of the fiscal year. In its 2015 budget proposal, the Obama Administration proposed a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when costs of fighting fires exceed Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets. The proposal tracks closely with legislation authored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Representatives Mike Simpson of Idaho and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.