Tuesday, July 29, 2008

FIGHTING FOREST FIRES FOR TV AUDIENCES

Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times - Increased use of aircraft is helping to drive up the cost of fighting wildfires. The Forest Service spent $296 million on aerial firefighting last year, compared with $171 million in 2004. Aviation costs amount to about one-fifth of the agency's fire-suppression spending.

Nearly all of the nation's firefighting aircraft are owned and operated by private companies under contract with the government. The meter starts running when an incident commander calls aircraft to a fire. It continues whether a plane is in the air dropping retardant or sitting on a remote tarmac, waiting for visibility to improve.

It costs up to $14,000 a day to keep an air tanker on call and as much as $4,200 per hour to put it in the air. Heavy-duty helicopters, the workhorses of aerial firefighting, can cost $32,000 a day on standby, plus $6,300 per hour of flight time.

"When you deal with aviation on a wildland fire, you have a big bank in the sky that opens up and showers money," said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former Forest Service and National Park Service firefighter who has criticized federal firefighting and forest management practices.

Pressure to use aircraft has grown as wildfires have become larger and more dangerous, and as more subdivisions have sprung up in fire-prone canyons and woodlands. When a column of smoke appears in the distance, frightened homeowners want dramatic action, and an air tanker pouring red retardant on a blazing ridgeline is undeniably dramatic.

As a result, Americans have become conditioned to think officials aren't taking a fire seriously until they unleash a ferocious aerial attack. . .

Aircraft have an important but limited role in firefighting. In the early stages of a fire, drops of water or retardant can hold the flames in check until ground crews arrive. Aircraft can also douse fires on ridges or in canyons that firefighters can't reach. An all-out aerial attack can save money if it brings a fire under control early.

"You can make or break a fire in one day with the right amount of aviation," said Dennis Hulbert, the Forest Service's aviation chief for California.

But it's a firefighting axiom that "aviation doesn't put out a fire." Only crews and engines on the ground can do that.

What's more, bulky tankers such as C-130s -- designed to carry troops, armored vehicles and other equipment -- are not well-suited to operate in California's steep canyons and mountains.

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