The Obama administration's neglect of the federal government's aerial tanker fleet raises acrid questions about its core public safety priorities. Bipartisan complaints goaded the White House into signing a Band-Aid fix last week. But it smacks more of election-year gesture politics: Too little, too late, too fake.
Ten years ago, the feds had a fleet of 44 firefighting planes. Today, the number is down to nine for the entire country. Last summer, Obama's National Forest Service canceled a key federal contract with Sacramento-based Aero Union just as last season's wildfires were raging. Aero Union had supplied eight vital air tankers to Washington's dwindling aerial firefighting fleet. Two weeks later, the company closed down, and 60 employees lost their jobs. Aero Union had been a leader in the business for a half-century.
Why were they grounded? National Forest Service bureaucrats and some media accounts cite "safety" concerns. But as California GOP Rep. Dan Lungren noted in a letter obtained by reporter Audrey Hudson of the conservative D.C. newspaper Human Events last year, a Federal Aviation Administration representative said it was a contractual/compliance matter, not safety, that doomed Aero Union's fleet.
"I am deeply troubled by the Forest Service's sudden action," Lungren warned, "particularly as California enters into the fire season. Our aerial firefighting fleet is already seriously undercapitalized." Both the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Department of Agriculture's Inspector General have been critical of the Forest Service's handling of the matter. All of this has been known to the Obama administration since it took the reins in 2009.
Nine months after Lungren's warning, the deadly High Park fire in Larimer County, Colo., claimed a grandmother's life, destroyed 189 homes and scorched nearly 60,000 acres. Arizona, New Mexico, Washington and Wyoming also have battled infernos this summer.
After months of dire red flags from a diverse group of politicians ranging from Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry and Arizona GOP Sen. Jon Kyl to Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, President Obama finally signed emergency legislation last week to expedite the contracting process. Obama will borrow planes from Canada and provide $24 million for new aerial tanker contracts.