Colorado is suffering wildfires this summer, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes, with our own Stephen Green possibly among them. If Colorado’s experience this year is anything like Texas’ experience last year, then it can expect little to no help from the federal government. But Texas is a red state, Colorado is a swing state, so perhaps there’s hope that Obama won’t quite go Soviet on it as he did on Arizona on Monday.
Still, the Obama administration has slashed the US Air Force budget by about $4 billion. Sequestration threatens even more cuts. This is relevant to the wildfires because it takes aircraft to fight them. But before we get to that, environmental policy may already stand in the way of putting the fires out, according to an editorial in the Colorado Springs Gazette:
Part of the problem is red tape and vague policy regarding use of military aircraft to put out fires, even when they burn federal property. Part of it involves intentional interference with aerial fire suppression. Part of the problem is the Obama administration.
Environmentalists have fought the use of slurry for years, which may or may not explain why Obama seems to lack enthusiasm for a robust tanker fleet. Environmentalists sued to stop the use of fire retardant after it killed 50 steelhead trout in the Santa Ynez River near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2009. An earlier lawsuit involved the accidental dumping of between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons of fire retardant into Oregon’s Fall River in 2002, a mistake that killed all fish in the river. That mishap involved a slurry formula that is no longer used.
As a result of the most recent lawsuit, the Forest Service adopted rules that prevent dropping slurry within 300 feet of streams and lakes except when human lives are at risk. Forest officials say the rules won’t harm firefighting efforts.
We hope that is true. Even if it is, we know that a shortage of planes to drop retardants most certainly hinders firefighting throughout the country. That’s common sense.
Indeed. But common sense is uncommon in Obama’s Washington. The Weekly Standard follows up on those aircraft Colorado needs.
A C-130 fitted with the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) can drop 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant material in 5 seconds, and reload in just 15 minutes. This tempo is crucial to containing wildfires like the one devastating Colorado Springs. However, of a current fleet of nearly 380 C-130s, only eight can be fitted with the MAFFS—and four of them are already in the skies over Colorado. With another fire looming in the north of the state, there is no excess capacity to help protect civilian areas. That means thousands of exhausted firefighters on the ground are without enough of the crucial support they need to control the fires.
All this raises concerns about President Obama’s defense budget, which cuts 65 C-130s from the fleet over the next four years. While that will leave 318 C-130s, the demands on the fleet are not shrinking in Afghanistan or other places. Nor did the Air Force have much choice in the matter.
The Air Force took the brunt of Pentagon budget cuts in the 2013 budget, shrinking by 4 percent (or roughly $4 billion dollars), after having a flat budget since 2004. Since 2001, over 500 aircraft have been retired, and another 300 will be scrapped by 2017. All this is happening while demand for the Air Force increases: The service flew approximately 400 sorties per day in Afghanistan and Iraq during 2011, while also fighting in Libya and delivering thousands of tons of disaster relief aid to Japan after its earthquake and tsunami. C-130s have been central to all these operations, and the proposed cuts will reduce airlift capacity among all the Air Force’s components: active, reserve, and guard. Sequestration would be even worse, mandating equal percentage cuts down to the program level across the service, with no flexibility for Air Force leadership to target the cuts.
But as the wildfire in Colorado shows, readiness and flexibility are sometimes needed at home as much as abroad. Cutting more C-130s puts a greater strain on the entire Air Force fleet.
Pay close attention to Obama’s priorities on this. Will he put trout ahead of swing state voters? His administration already took three days to respond, a timeline that got George W. Bush clobbered in the press despite the fact that most of the problems during Hurricane Katrina were local.