DENVER (AP) — As the Obama administration pushes Congress to ensure that enough money is available to fight destructive wildfires, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday that the U.S. Forest Service was adding four aircraft to its firefighting fleet ahead of what's expected to be another hot, dry summer in the West.
A second DC10 and three smaller planes will support over 10,000 firefighters "in the face of what is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season in the southwest," the Forest Service said in a statement.
Vilsack made the announcement in Colorado while discussing ways to revamp the nation's firefighting budget. Increasingly destructive fires, powered by climate change and development in once-rural areas, are devouring an increasing amount of the Forest Service's budget and forcing it to skimp on brush clearance and other programs that eliminate the fuel that feeds the blazes.
The 2015 budget request for firefighting is $2.2 billion, up from $2.1 billion in 2014. It also would set up an additional $954 million disaster funding pool, to avoid dipping into fire-prevention programs. Borrowing from other programs would only occur if the $954 million in disaster spending is exhausted.
"This is just extraordinarily important," Vilsack said. "We need to start thinking about forest fires caused by lightning in the same way we think about tornadoes and floods and hurricanes." He said those disasters are paid for by separate funds in the federal budget.
With the announcement Tuesday, the Forest Service brought its fleet to 21 large air tankers and more than 100 helicopters. About a decade ago, the Forest Service had more than 40 of the big tankers at its disposal. According to federal analysts, the fleet hit a low of eight aircraft at one point last year, depleted by age and worries over the ability of the planes to stay in the sky. But five of the service's planes are still not ready to fly.
Colorado's top firefighting official said the new federal aircraft offered a "sigh of relief."
Paul Cooke, director of the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said he was expecting an average fire season for Colorado. But he said "average" in recent years has meant some 3,000 fires and more than 100,000 acres burned.
Colorado's senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, also welcomed Tuesday's tanker announcement.
During his stop in Denver, the agriculture secretary also announced prevention measures that include designations to help 94 national forest areas in 35 states address insects and diseases that turn trees into tinder.
Also Tuesday, the Forest Service banned exploding targets in northern Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and portions of South Dakota in part to avoid wildfire risks.
In drought-stricken California, wildfires that broke out in San Diego County last week caused more than $20 million in damage. The state firefighting agency went to peak staffing in the first week of April, instead of its usual start in mid-May.
Thousands of additional firefighters may be needed in the future, California Gov. Jerry Brown told ABC's "This Week," adding that California is on the front lines of climate change.
In Colorado, red flag warnings on the risk of wildfires were posted for Colorado Springs and other parts of the state as well as New Mexico and Arizona. The danger is also high in the Texas Panhandle and southwestern Kansas.