One local newspaper columnist, The Gazette’s Barry Noreen, is taking some of us to task for daring to write about the wildfire-fighting air tanker shortage. This amounts to “blaming” Barack Obama for the Waldo Canyon fire, he says. We’re trying to “exploit” a tragedy to score political points. This is typical of the response the story has gotten from some in the Softball Media. If someone in the old, dead-tree media had stumbled across this aspect of the story, or if it had come to light when a Republican was in the White House, they’d be all over it. But because it originated in the new media, and they can’t lay claim to it, it’s something to be ignored, mischaracterized or dismissed as a footnote.
No one said President Obama is responsible for this particular fire; how it started or how it behaved. That’s just a straw man. Noreen hopes that by misrepresenting the argument, he wins the argument. But he doesn’t even do his readers the courtesy of explaining what the argument is, or to put the issue in context, so I’ll do it for them.
The question I and others are asking is whether the Obama administration left the U.S. Forest Service woefully short of critical air support assets going into what was almost sure to be a bad wildfire season, and whether the Obama administration reduced the margin for error to a dangerous point just one year ago, when it cancelling a wildfire air tanker contract that eliminated 1/3 of the fleet, based on disputed allegations that one contractor was operating unsafely. At the time of cancellation, the federal contract air tanker fleet already was less than half the size it was when the Hayman fire burned the Pikes Peak area a decade ago – down to 19 from 44 planes. The cancelled contract left just 11 planes available at the start of this wildfire season; a number that was cut to just 9 planes after one plane crashed (with fatalities) and another was grounded in May.
Even a layperson – though apparently not a newspaper columnist — quickly grasps that 11 planes is too few to provide an adequate level of air support over an entire country, especially if multiple events break out, as happened this year. It’s not like the wildfire threat has been shrinking: on the contrary, it’s been growing, thanks to drought and massive beetle kills. It’s mind boggling to me that the Forest Service would be drastically reducing its airborne firefighting capabilities in the midst of a continuing crisis. That the Obama White House accelerated these reductions — and did nothing to fill the vacuum created by the cancelled contract in the past 11 months — is something it ought to answer for.
A more curious journalist would wonder how and why the Forest Service allowed its air tanker fleet to be cut to such a dangerously thin margin, in the midst of the greatest wildfire threat this nation has known. A curious journalist might wonder whether the contract cancellation was justified, or just a bureaucratic paperwork dispute, which I happen to suspect it was, based on my continuing research into the issue. A sensible person might wonder whether cutting the fleet by a third, and never replacing those planes, was under such circumstances irresponsible and even reckless, given the arguably greater risks posed by entering another Western wildfire season so woefully under-equipped. But rather than exercise a little actual curiosity about this rather troubling turn of events, or refute the facts, Noreen takes the head-in-the-sand position that this administration and the federal officials under its command handled the situation flawlessly, and are beyond questioning or criticism.
Even if Noreen and others accept at face value that slashing the air tanker fleet by a third was necessary for safety reasons, don’t they believe the administration should be held accountable for doing absolutely nothing in the intervening 11 months to fill the air tanker vacuum this left? Shouldn’t the Forest Service be questioned for repeatedly assuring the public that it had all the resources it needed to handle the threat, though it obviously did not? Wouldn’t those additional planes have come in handy not just here, but everywhere else that out-of-control fires are burning?
We can’t just judge the federal wildfire response solely based on what happened here in Colorado Springs – where a mad scramble and military rescue were required to finally get things under control – but on what’s happening elsewhere across the West, where things are far from under control. As important as it was and is, Waldo Canyon isn’t the only fire burning in the West. Many other homes and cabins have gone up in flames in New Mexico and Northern Colorado. What other fires may have gotten less attention when our fire became priority number one? There are only so many planes and helicopters available — and less of both than we need. It’s reasonable under such circumstances to ask whether, with multiple fires and severely limited resources, some other fire got shorted when assets were shifted here. I don’t know how any reasonable person can argue that the government response was adequate in the face of such devastation.
Of course federal officials are going to insist they weren’t caught short-handed this wildfire season. Of course the administration is not going to want to talk about the cancelled contract. But the folks “in charge” obviously were caught ill-equipped and ill-prepared, as shown by the belated scramble the administration began, several weeks ago, to do what it could have and should have done one year ago to shore-up a dated and depleted air fleet. Those actions only came after fires were raging out of control in New Mexico and Northern Colorado. That the military had to be called-in offers further proof that the agency wasn’t equipped to handle this contingency, despite repeated assurances to the contrary. The fatal crash of one of those military jets should be counted as another result, and casualty, of this lack of preparedness.
I made the point in my piece that responsibility for allowing our public lands to become explosively-over-fueled firetraps, and for failing to respond adequately to the dangers this presents cities like our own, spanned many years and numerous administrations. But the breaking point came on this President’s watch – and was hastened, in my opinion, by the still-inadequately-explained cutting of an already depleted fleet, less than one year ago. I wrote my piece weeks before the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted, spurred by my alarm at seeing infernos scorching great swaths of New Mexico and Northern Colorado – so any implication that I was exploiting the Waldo Canyon tragedy to score political points is off-base. The Walso Canyon fire flared-up weeks after I blew this whistle.
Noreen and others are free to believe our federal landlords were adequately prepared and equipped to deal with this wildfire season, even though the massive (and in my view scandalous) destruction of private and public property strongly argues otherwise. They are free to believe the feds handled everything with the professionalism, efficiency, competence and speed for which Washington is everywhere renowned. They’ve managed to spread our beetle blight epidemic with great skill, after all. But I believe the wildfire tanker shortage is evidence that we are foolish to trust our fates to the red-tape-bound, unresponsive federal agencies that not only helped create the volatile forest health conditions we see in our backyard today, but who’ve been completely incapable of dealing with a crisis that’s been evident and growing for well over a decade. Reducing the air tanker fleet to such thin margins in the midst of the continuing crisis tells me the people in charge are doing something wrong. Colorado Springs has paid a terrible price for that, as are many other
communities in the West. And that makes me angry. I guess I’m not as eager to shrug it all off as some people are.
Fire may be a natural phenomenon, but the intensity of the infernos we’re seeing today, and our paralysis in dealing with them, also result from forest management policies and practices that human beings exercise control over. Shrugging our shoulders and saying that this is all just the result of climate change, or factors beyond human control, is a copout that allows those who helped create the forest health crisis (of which wildfire is just one symptom), and those who have systematically stymied our ability to get a handle on it, to evade responsibility
Think of the ten years that have transpired since the Hayman burn. That was supposedly a wake-up call. But what meaningful steps have been taken in response to the crisis since then? Virtually none. Well, actually one – they reduced the size of the air tanker fleet from 44 to 9 planes.
I know this President and his supporters have a real knack for dodging responsibility for the things that happen on his watch, including the firefighter air tanker shortage, but the buck shouldn’t stop at the top only when a Republican is in the White House. I’m sure Obama’s defenders would be all ears if I said that Bush is also responsible for the air tanker shortage, which he partially is. But being Barack Obama means never having to account for what happens on your watch.
Is this really “politicizing” the issue? Or is it a matter of holding people and agencies accountable for taking us into this terribly ferocious wildfire season scandalously ill-equipped to deal with it? Isn’t that something that the self-styled watchdogs in journalism should do? Instead, when it’s this President, the media watchdogs have become lapdogs.
Colorado journalists had an opportunity to quiz the President about the wildfire tanker shortage when he visited Colorado Springs Friday. But they apparently were too awed by his presence to dare ask such an impertinent question.