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After the Yarnell Hill Fire: Feds still dragging their feet

Hall: Lack of preparedness deeply frustrating
July 5th, 2013

I am deeply saddened by events in Arizona that left 19 firefighters dead. I am also frustrated — frustrated at our government’s lack of preparedness to combat wildfires.

Just last month, we saw the Black Forest Fire in Colorado destroy 509 homes and leave two dead. And now, just weeks later, more destructive wildfires have claimed almost two dozen of our country’s bravest men in the line of duty. Have we not learned our lesson in regard to safely fighting wildfires? Is there no way to improve our firefighting capabilities?

As a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I know there are ways we can combat these fires safely and more effectively. Shortly after my chairmanship, I had the privilege of co-chairing a blue-ribbon panel for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in 2002 that assessed the safety and effectiveness of aerial firefighting.

Sadly, 11 years later, it appears our government has failed to take the panel’s recommendations, as evidenced by the recent unruly wildfires. If we truly want to contain this growing domestic-security threat, Congress needs to act by creating an agency devoted to wildfire management.

One of the primary takeaways from the blue-ribbon panel is that climate change creates a new environment with new risks. As extreme heat waves and droughts become more prevalent, so does the likelihood that wildfires will be sparked.

In recent years, we have seen a staggering increase in the average amount of acres burned per fire. Last month, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified before Congress that, “on average, wildfires burn twice as many acres each year as compared to 40 years ago.” This surge can be attributed to hotter, drier conditions that allow wildfires to spread more easily.

Another of the panel’s major findings was a need for more technologically advanced aircraft. Firefighting aircraft are often aircraft that are obtained from the Pentagon’s “boneyard.” While these old aircraft are serviceable, the need for a mission-specific aircraft is undeniable. Former military aircraft are not designed for firefighting services. Firefighting missions are drastically different from those of military patrol and support missions; they are in a more severe flight environment with high heat and low air density. Furthermore, tailored firefighting aircraft would provide optimal cargo space for firefighting operations, likely increasing capacity while allowing the pilot to safely maneuver the aircraft.

Just look at the vehicles deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect our troops from roadside bombs. Once the need for such a vehicle was identified, we spent billions of dollars beginning in 2007 for the development and acquisition of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles. The same thing needs to be done in the development of heavy aircraft and helicopters whose specific mission is to fight wildfires.

The men and women fighting fires on the ground and in our homeland deserve the same support and resources we provide our troops defending our country overseas.

Just as Congress created the Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11, 2001, to focus on terrorist threats, Congress also needs to create an agency that manages this domestic-security threat. This agency’s presence would provide responsibility, accountability, and a commitment to research and development to learn how to more effectively combat wildfires.

Currently, the Interior and Agriculture departments both budget for wildfire management. Having two departments of the government budget for the same issue is redundant, uncoordinated and obfuscates the mission at hand. As such, this agency should be tasked with improving a budgeting process that creates mission muddle.

We owe it to the firefighters who have lost their lives and the taxpayers who have lost their homes to tackle wildfire management aggressively — by creating an agency whose sole purpose is managing wildfire threats. With the climate rapidly changing, this threat is only going to get worse.

This year, the White House’s budget calls for nearly $3 billion for wildfire management. More needs to be done. To put it in perspective, $88 billion will be spent this year to continue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while taxpayers’ homes continue to burn and lives are unnecessarily lost.

Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, was co-chairman of a blue-ribbon panel that in 2002 assessed aerial firefighting.

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