Signs Point To Destructive Wildfire Season Ahead

Guest host Tess Vigeland talks with NPR's Kirk Siegler about the early wildfire season this year in the west and whether or not a new fleet of air tankers promised to the forest service will be ready in time for the worst of the season.

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Authorities are still searching for a motive in yesterday's shooting rampage in Santa Monica, California. Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said the alleged shooter had weapons with the capacity to fire 1,300 rounds of ammunition.

Meanwhile, north of Los Angeles, fire officials say the so-called powerhouse fire in the Angeles National Forest is 90 percent contained. Twenty-four homes were destroyed, and state officials say the blaze cost some $16 million to knock down.

Fire season started early in California this year. Last year, the focus was on wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico. All signs point to a destructive season ahead, given how parched the earth is in the southwest and west.

NPR's Kirk Siegler is reporting that story and joins us now from NPR West in California. Hi, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hello, Tess.

VIGELAND: So apart from a couple of wildfires that got out of control in New Mexico, most of the news so far has been there in California.

SIEGLER: That's right. And this would typically be the height of the wildfire season in the southwest - New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Colorado - because it's before the monsoon thunderstorms tend to arrive. But, you know, despite how dry it is and how hot it's been, a lot of the region has, as you said, been spared so far.

Now here in California, that's not really the case. The fire season is off to an earlier start because the winter rains that usually tide this area over until July or August, they barely materialized. So a lot of the federal resources have been mobilized here so far.

VIGELAND: Kirk, I'm wondering, has there been any effect - because so many federal agencies were tagged by the sequestration - has that had an effect on the U.S. Forest Service?

SIEGLER: You know, it might. It's worth mentioning that as a result of the sequestration, there'll be about 500 fewer firefighters on hand this summer. It brings it down from about 10,500 that the U.S. Forest Service usually has to around 10,000. You know, that may not seem like a lot, but it actually can make a difference if you consider the largest wildfire we've had so far in the west, that being north of L.A. here, the powerhouse fire. At its height last week, you know, there were 2,000 firefighters on it. So it can make a difference.

One place budget cuts probably won't be felt for now is in the air. I'm speaking to the line item for the forest service's new modern fleet of air tankers that the agency hopes to start bringing online this season. You know, whether or not those will be ready by this summer as planned is another twist in this tale.

VIGELAND: Well, OK. So air tanker 101 here, it is well known that the existing fleet that, you know, drops water and fire retardant, that's been in some trouble.

SIEGLER: Yes. That existing fleet, these stem from the Korean War and they're aging. You know, the problems really started in earnest in the early 2000s with several high-profile crashes that led to reviews and grounding of some of the fleet. By 2012, there are fewer than 20 of these air tankers active. And I'm told that this season, it's more like 10.

VIGELAND: Well, Kirk, is there any assurance on the part of the forest service that, you know, residents throughout the west that they'll be ready?

SIEGLER: There is some uncertainty about this, and that's largely been due to a contract dispute between the forest service and a Montana-based company that's long been one of the government's main suppliers for these firefighting planes. Now just this week, the word surfaced that the company has dropped its protests. And that's clearing the way for the other firms to get the new generation planes ready. But we're still, you know, several weeks, maybe a couple of months behind schedule here. And who knows what might happen by August. So we still have a lot of weeks and a lot of uncertainty yet.

VIGELAND: Kirk Siegler joining us from NPR West in Culver City. Thanks so much.

SIEGLER: Thank you, Tess.

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