New helicopters and smaller aircraft are just as good at fighting Arizona fires as the large air tankers grounded earlier this year, federal officials said Monday.
Not quite, a state forestry official said.
"One of the tools isn’t in the toolbox anymore," said deputy state forester Kirk Rowdabaugh. "The resources have been compromised."
The differing opinions reflect part of the ongoing debate about the decision by government officials to ground 33 air tankers nationwide, including eight in Arizona, before the start of the summer fire season. While some of those planes could return to service in a few weeks, officials said most will never fight fires again because of safety concerns. Two of the planes crashed in 2002, killing all on board.
The "reconfiguration" of the country’s air resources — though expensive — will cover the loss of the grounded planes, said officials with the Bush ad- ministration who Monday visited the East Valley.
During a news conference at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Interior Secretary Gail Norton said the country is entering a new phase of wildfire management.
"We can double the amount of firefighting capability as in the past, and at the same time we increase the safety," Norton said.
Alternatives for aerial firefighting will accompany the new approach to maintaining forests as detailed in President Bush’s Healthy Forest Initiative, she said. The idea is to thin out the vegetation in some forests while letting certain areas burn, although some details still need to be decided, she said.
Mark Rey, whose job includes overseeing the U.S. Forest Service, said 139 extra helicopters and airplanes are being deployed this fire season to make up for the grounded tankers, at a cost of $66 million.
In Arizona, the additional resources include 23 helicopters and 19 single-engine air tankers, he said. Two military C-130 cargo planes outfitted for firefighting are also based this summer at Williams Gateway.
"It’s what we think is adequate to deal with that level of risk," said Rey, under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources and Environment.
The new system appears to work as well as when the heavy air tankers were flying, Rey said. So far this year, 98.5 percent of 805 fires in Arizona were extinguished in the "initial attack" phase, he said. Firefighters were only able to put out 93.5 percent of 332 fires in the initial attack by this time last year, he said.
"We want people to feel safe because they should feel safe," Rey said. "The reconfiguration is doing the job we have designed it for. Knock on wood, that success is being enjoyed."
Rowdabaugh said those figures are misleading. The number of fires started by people this year, which are typically the worst fires, are down by 30 percent. The 10-year average for human-caused fires by Monday’s date is 441, but so far humans have only started 319 fires, he said.
"That’s really what’s saving us," he said.
Whether firefighting capability has really been weakened by the aircraft grounding may never be known, depending on the fire season. But it seems possible, he said.
Large air tankers are "the most efficient, effective firefighting tool available," Rowdabaugh said. "These other aircraft, they are not exact replacements."