A Forest Service assessment of the agency’s night-flying operations--begun almost two years ago and slated to be released in August--has yet to be completed. Following the release of the GAO report on the United States Forest Service response to the 2009 Station Fire (see Federal Report on Lessons to Learn From Station Fire Response), Schiff wrote Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell urging the USFS to speedily complete the report and make it public.
While the GAO report did not conclusively state that night flights would have contained it earlier, Schiff wrote in his letter, “The report acknowledges that the use of night-flying aircraft may have allowed the Forest Service to suppress the Station Fire before it escaped efforts to contain it.”
USFS assessment will study various aspects of nighttime helicopter use, including risk and effectiveness, and look at the option of having the Forest Service develop its own night-flying capability.
“I urge the Forest Service to complete that report as soon as possible and publicly release it, so that the public can determine if the development of the Forest Service’s own night-flying capability is a safe, efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars to fight forest fires,” Schiff wrote.
Double-crewing tanker aircraft
Schiff also took the agency to task for being unwilling to require contractors to “double-crew” firefighting tankers. Double-crewing would allow tankers to operate from sunrise to sunset, according to the Schiff letter, because crews must take mandatory rest breaks.
“If the tankers had been able to operate from sunrise to sunset, tankers would have been able to start fighting the fire at 7 a.m. on the first full day of the fire, August 27th, as was requested over the previous night and might have been able to contain the fire more effectively,” Schiff wrote.
Schiff said that the Forest Service does not operate double crews because of the belief that “double-crewing the tankers would jeopardize safety because of the age and maintenance requirements of the aircrafts.
“While it might be expensive to double-crew the tankers in terms of maintenance upkeep and personnel costs, in comparison to the cost of the extensive damaged suffered by Southern California residents due to the Station Fire, I believe that such a step would be cost effective. I strongly urge the Forest Service to consider implementing double-crewing of firefighting tankers and that the Forest Service develop a plan to do so.”