The latest draft of a federal appropriations bill “will catalyze” the U.S. Forest Service to issue its findings on whether to lift a ban on nighttime water-dropping flights to combat wildfires, according to an announcement issued today by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank).
Schiff, whose district includes large swaths of land scorched by the 2009 Station fire that critics say could have been more quickly contained with nighttime air attacks, has been taking the Forest Service to task for its prolonged review of the ban.
Contending the agency has consistently missed internal deadlines to deliver its findings, Schiff said in the statement that he secured language Thursday in the latest markup of the Department of the Interior appropriations bill that calls on the Forest Service to complete the night-flying operation studies within 90 days of the spending plan being approved.
“With another fire season upon us, the Forest Service’s lack of action is beyond negligence,” Schiff said. “The agency must conclude their analyses of whether and how to develop its own night-flying capability public immediately.”
Citing safety concerns, the Forest Service stopped using night flights decades ago. But the absence of air attacks in the pre-dawn hours of the Station fire when it started in August 2009 has been cited as a key reason the blaze grew out of control – eventually consuming 200,000 acres over the course of nine weeks.
Dozens of homes and structures were burned in the fire, which was also blamed for the death of two firefighters.
Tom Harbor, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, has said his agency is taking a thorough approach to re-evaluating the nighttime flight ban, particularly to see if changing the policy would be “the right kind of investment” for taxpayers.
In doing so, Harbor said there was no timeframe for reaching a decision on the policy.
That stance hasn’t sat well with Schiff, who in his statement said that the language included in the appropriations bill would hopefully “catalyze the [Forest Service] to finally move forward and produce the reports they have long-promised but never delivered."
A report issued by the Government Accountability Office late last year also called on the Forest Service -- the investigative arm of Congress -- to clarify its policies on using aircraft and ground crews from local and state agencies.
-- Jason Wells, Times Community News