LOS ANGELES — With a vast swath of the West primed for wildfires, federal foresters are preparing for the worst with a budget that might run dry and a fleet of air tankers that in some cases aren’t ready for takeoff.
A combination of extended drought, warming weather and an abundance of withered trees and grasses have created ideal conditions for fire — more than 22 million acres were blackened by wildfires from 2011-2013, primarily across the West.
“It looks like it’s going to be a serious enough season to where we run out of money again,” Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, warned in an interview with The Associated Press.
“I’m really concerned, there is no question,” Harbour said. “I think we are going to have a lot of fire.”
The agency is doing what it can to prepare for wildfire season by burning sections of forest in high-risk areas to remove dead or dry vegetation that could fuel a fire. In another step, crews will launch a major forest-thinning project on Lake Tahoe’s north shore.
In no place is the situation more worrisome than in California, where several years of stingy rainfall have turned forests and scrub into matchsticks and tens of thousands of homes are perched along fire-prone areas.
Firefighters battled a blaze in the mountains east of Los Angeles this week, where temperatures neared triple digits. And states from New Mexico through southern Oregon have been left sere by a lack of rain and snow.
But even as fire risk has increased in recent years, the number of large air tankers dropped.
About a decade ago the Forest Service had more than 40 of the big tankers at its disposal — the draft horses of firefighting aircraft that can dump thousands of gallons of flame-snuffing retardant in a single swoop, far more than a helicopter.
According to federal analysts, the fleet hit a low of eight aircraft at one point last year, depleted by age and concerns over the ability of the planes, in some cases flying since the dawn of the Cold War, to stay in the sky.
Deadly crashes — including when a 57-year-old tanker flew into the side of a Utah mountain in June 2012, killing the pilot and co-pilot — fanned doubts about safety. A federal investigation into the cause of that crash is incomplete.
The agency has been working for several years to modernize its creaky fleet of tankers, with checkered results.
The core of the fleet was expected to include 17 aircraft for 2014, but seven of those planes aren’t ready to fly.
The fleet is anchored to eight aircraft with an average age of half a century. As part of a modernization blueprint, the Forest Service contracted last year for seven newer tankers that can fly twice as fast as the older planes and carry larger payloads, but only two are on the runway.
The others are eight months late on delivery. Among the issues: The tankers have yet to obtain Federal Aviation Administration certification, a requirement to fly.
The agency hopes to have all the tankers off the ground by summer, but Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, has called the delay unacceptable.
“These tankers promised to be a game-changer for Western communities grappling with the perennial threat of modern mega-fires,” Udall wrote to the Forest Service in April. “I am deeply concerned that delivery of the remaining five will be further delayed and unavailable for the 2014 wildfire season.”
Federal studies suggest the agency needs as many as 28 of the newer, faster tankers, but that target remains years away.
Meanwhile, plans for two other large tankers have been sidelined by a dispute over a contract that called for paying up to $496 million over nine years to a Montana company for exclusive use of two aircraft. A decision has not been made whether to scrap the deal or try to fix it.