Night flying helicopters discussed in Senate hearing

Did anyone see the hearing conducted by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior this morning? The agenda was supposed to be “Examination of the firefighting policy with U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Interior”. The following report by 89.3 KPPC Southern California Public Radio concentrates on the use of night flying helicopters for fire suppression, as did other reports.

The U.S. Forest Service won’t deploy night-flying aircraft to fight fires before the end of Southern California’s traditional fire season.

The Forest Service has maintained a ban on fighting fires by air after dark since a helicopter crash back in 1977. Critics say that if the agency had allowed water-tanker planes in the air after dark, that equipment might have stopped last summer’s deadly Station Fire much sooner.

At a U.S. Senate hearing, Forest Service officials said they’re reconsidering the ban on night time aerial firefighting. The problem is that the Service doesn’t have the technology to do it. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank says they “no longer have the night time flying goggles or the equipment in the helicopter to be able to use them.”

Schiff was invited by his California colleague Senator Dianne Feinstein to join senators who questioned the Forest Service’s night time ban. Schiff says the Service is considering two options.

“One is to acquire the capability in house. Another is to work with some of their cooperators — which is what they call L.A. County, L.A. City, that already have the capacity. Whether they should basically contract with them.”

The problem is that local governments have their own equipment challenges. Last summer, a Los Angeles County helicopter was in the air, fighting the Station Fire after dark until a medical emergency diverted the chopper from the fire scene.

If the Forest Service lifts its ban, the earliest it could have aircraft ready to fly at night would be November, well into the Southland’s wildfire season.


Here is an excerpt from the LA Times’ coverage of the hearing:

The head of the U.S. Forest Service told a Senate panel Wednesday that water-dropping helicopters would have been deployed during the critical first night of last summer’s disastrous Station blaze if they had been available and that the agency is considering ending its decades-long ban on using federal firefighting aircraft after dark.

Under pointed questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell also defended the agency’s handling of the fire the next morning, when a heavy air assault did not begin until several hours after daylight. He said aircraft alone would not have stopped the flames from raging out of control.

But Schiff expressed doubt that an earlier air attack on Day 2 would have been ineffective because of steep terrain, as the Forest Service determined in November after an internal review.

“The conclusion that it would not have helped anyway is a little too facile,” he said.

Feinstein, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that held Wednesday’s hearing, said equipping the Forest Service with night-flying aircraft is a “real priority,” especially in California. She said global warming and enduring droughts have heightened the danger of huge wildfires that threaten neighborhoods.

“Fires are not going to get better, they’re going to get worse,” she said.

Senate hearing about bark beetle legislation canceled because of anger over health care bill

Our hired help in Washington is implementing elementary school tactics to run our country.

From the Associated Press today:

DENVER (AP) _ U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and a Colorado state senator have gotten caught in the crossfire over health care. A hearing Tuesday on Udall’s bill to protect communities from bark beetles was canceled after Republicans angry over the passage of health insurance reform legislation blocked it by using an obscure Senate rule requiring a unanimous consent to hold hearings scheduled after 2 p.m.

If we give them the benefit of the doubt, they canceled the meeting because working past 2 p.m. would have been contrary to their preferred working hours, not because they threw a *hissy fit over the fact that some legislation was passed.

From Senator Udall’s office today:

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Today’s hearing on Senator Udall’s bark beetle legislation has been canceled due to Republican Obstruction

Washington, D.C. — Today’s scheduled hearing on Senator Mark Udall’s bill to protect communities from wildfire and falling trees as a result of bark beetle infestation has been canceled due to Republican obstructionism. Angry over the passage of health insurance reform legislation, Republican leaders are using an arcane rule, which requires the unanimous consent of Senators in both parties to agree to hearings scheduled after 2 p.m., and have objected to the bark beetle hearing and vowed not to cooperate with Democrats for the rest of the year.

“It is critical that this hearing go forward — especially with Senator Gibbs in Washington to explain how important this bipartisan bill is to Coloradans. Delay just prevents urgently needed resources from going to Colorado communities threatened by beetle-killed trees,” Senator Udall said. “I strongly urge my colleagues to re-think their strategy — this is a matter of public safety, and that’s too important for political gamesmanship.”

The bark beetle bill was introduced in November by U.S. Senators Mark Udall, D-CO, and James Risch, R-ID. Senator Risch is a graduate of  the University of Idaho’s School of Forestry.

*Hissy fit, from Urban Dictionary:

noun. A sudden outburst of temper, often used to describe female anger at something trivial. Originally regional from American South. Thought to originate from contraction of “hysterical fit.”

NTSB live hearing about EMS helicopters

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The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a 4-day public hearing about the safety of helicopter emergency medical services (EMS) operations. The hearing begins today and is being broadcast live via the Internet.

According to a press release from the NTSB issued November 10, 2008, this is the reason for the hearing:

The NTSB issued a Special Investigation Report on EMS Operations in January 2006. The report involved the analysis of all EMS-related aviation accidents that occurred from January 2002 through January 2005. There were a total of 55 accidents that occurred during this 3-year window; 41 helicopters and 14 airplanes. These accidents killed 54 people, and seriously injured 19. Analysis of the accidents indicated that 29 of 55 accidents could have been prevented with corrective actions identified in the report.

However, over the past 11 months the Safety Board has investigated nine fatal EMS Accidents with a total of 35 fatalities. In 2008 alone there have been 7 fatal accidents with 28 fatalities. This is a drastic increase in accidents since the Special Investigation Report and therefore has prompted the Safety Board to examine this issue in greater detail by holding this hearing.

Wildland firefighters have a special interest in this hearing, in that Michael MacDonald of the Chief Mountain Hot Shots who was being evacuated by helicopter from a fire in Grand Canyon National Park died in a crash on June 29, 2008. Also killed was Tom Clausing, 42, formerly a Grand Canyon National Park employee, who was the flight paramedic on the helicopter.

Live Blogging the Senate hearing

The most recent posts will be at the top. All times are Mountain Time. Hit Refresh to get the latest updates.

(The hearing is over now. All three representatives from the on-the-ground organizations did an excellent job. They mostly prepared good written testimony which they read, and responded eloquently to the questions the Senators asked. I am proud of them.)

1:31; Sen. Craig asked Miley about the use of private engines on fires. Miley talked about the difficulty of getting regions outside of Washington and Oregon to accept contract engines. Then the hearing ended.

1:25; Questions from the Senators begin. Thatcher was asked about federal firefighters leaving for better paying jobs in other agencies. Judd said that firefighters feel that “the agency does not give a damn about me” and that the fed. agencies do not care about the employees. Judd was asked about “poor morale”. Judd said study groups have made recommendations about how to fix the retention problems, but the agencies have not taken action as needed. He said the management of the fire program by people with no fire experience is as much of a problem as pay and benefits.

1:20; Debra Miley talked about the role of private contractors. She said the agencies save money by using them. Her organization has access to 10,000 firefighters along with 5,000 “support” personnel. Seems like really high numbers. She spent more time talking about her organization. And more time.

1:11; Casey Judd was next. He began by listing activities his organization has been involved in. He mentioned the “systematic dismantling of the fire program” in the Forest Service, inequitable pay, outdated classification standards, retention problems, that leadership does not have fire experience, and that some fire funds are siphoned off before they hit the ground.

1:08; Thatcher spoke about the retention problem within the fire agencies and that college degrees are now necessary for some fire management positions. He said that experience and competence are more important than degrees.

1:05; The second panel begins. Each of the witnesses was asked to make a brief 5-minute summary of their testimony.

  • Ron Thatcher, National Federation of Federal Employees (FFFE)
  • Debra Miley, Federal Wildland Fire Service Association (FWFSA),
  • Casey Judd, National Wildfire Suppression Association (NWSA)

1:02; Senator John Barrasso R-WY was concerned about damage by bark beetles. Rey said lodgepole pines have a 100-year burn cycle (it’s actually 300+ years) and that yes, the insect-killed trees will increase the intensity of fire. Barrasso asked about salvage sales, and Rey said yes, that’s a possiblity.

12:55; Senator Ron Wyden D-OR said that he thinks the high cost of fuel is hurting firefighting efforts and that the agencies need to consider how to deal with this issue.

12:50: Senator Larry Craig R-ID, said that firefighters “don’t need Masters degrees” to fight fire, and thanked Rey for solving this issue. And “can’t we borrow Arnold’s big airplane (DC-10)” (seriously). Craig asked if DC-10’s and 747’s are effective. Rey said they can be effective in some situations.

12:45; Senator Ken Salazar D-CO, said “What is green in a climax environment eventually turns brown and dies”, referring to fuel buildup concerns.

12:38; Domenici says we should manage the forest better “by way of clean up” so there are fewer fires. Rey said “you don’t cure a problem that was 100 years in the making in one or two years’ time” and that there is a lot of fuel treatment going on. He told the story again about the question on the TV show Jeopardy: “What disaster in November, 2003 could have been avoided by cutting trees?”. He said all three contestants turned over their boards and all had a variation of something about a wildland fire. The “correct” answer was a widespread power blackout. Rey, the former timber company lobbyist, tells this story in every hearing; his point being that fuel treatment (and especially cutting trees?) is gaining entry to the public consciousness.

12:31; Senator Domenici R-NM, is up now. He’s rambling about collecting mushrooms in the forest. On and on about mushrooms. Still more about mushrooms. I thought this hearing was about fire. (Side note. In 2006 there were reports that Domenici was wandering the halls of the Senate office building wearing what looked like pajamas.)

12:26; Rey was asked about the large number of unfilled orders for resources on fires. Rey said that is normal for Preparedess Level 5 and that we would have to double the budget to fix that problem.

12:24; just got the streaming video working, after finding that the link did not work. See the earlier post below for the updated link. Mark Rey just finished reading his testimony. Senators are asking him questions now.

Congressional hearing on wildland fire preparedness

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This hearing will occur today at 2:00 PM Eastern Time today. The Federal Wildland Fire Service Association (FWFSA), the National Wildfire Supplression Association (NWSA), and the National Federation of Federal Employees (FFFE) will provide testimony during the second panel. The Senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources will conduct the hearing to:

“consider the preparedness of Federal land management agencies for the 2008 wildfire season.”

We will post some information here in real time during the hearing if it is broadcast live on C-Span; but, it is not scheduled at this time to be on C-Span.

Update: To get the streaming video, go to the Committee’s web site and click on Live Webcast on the left side at the bottom. You will need Real Player to open the “ram” file.