Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar on Thursday said prescribed fires can be conducted safely because there is a “very careful, meticulous process” for planning each project. The Secretary was responding to a question during a media conference call about a letter that Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet sent to the heads of the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The senators asked the agencies to review their prescribed fire procedures in light of the fatal Lower North Fork escaped prescribed fire on state land in Colorado. The Secretary said:
Both the Forest Service and the BLM and the Interior agencies have a very careful, meticulous process for determining whether a prescribed fire should be ignited. And we as a whole of the federal government feel very confident that if the process is followed we will be able to achieve a successful prescribed fire and thereby reduce hazardous fuel accumulation to make communities safer from the effects of a wildfire. So our history has shown that with all the prescribed fires that we do have around the country that we can do it in fact safely. So we will be responding to both Senator Udall and Senator Bennett because I think they are correct in terms of raising the issue just to make sure that we have all the appropriate protocols in place so that we can do prescribed fire burning safely.
In addition to Secretary Salazar, other federal officials on the conference call to discuss wildfire preparedness included Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture; Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator; Tom Tidwell, Forest Service Chief; and Ed Delgado, National Interagency Fire Center.
In response to a question about the diminished fleet of air tankers, Chief Tidwell said there could be up to three more large air tankers brought on this year and as many as ten more next year.
We’ll bring on probably another three [large air tankers] this year through additional contracts along with one very large air tanker that we also have on contract and then this year we will continue to rely on the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve to provide up to eight of their C-130s. We can slip in a retardant system into those aircraft and within a few hours have another eight aircraft that can respond to fires…So that’s what we have for this year. Next year we plan to probably bring on maybe up to another 10 additional large air tankers through this request for proposals to be able to augment our current fleet.
Actually, the interagency agreement requires that Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130s be operational within 48 hours. However, MAFFS aircraft have routinely responded within 36 hours of the initial request.
The Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture issued a news release on Thursday about the 2012 wildfire season.