Image: Air tanker
USFS via AP
An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Gila National Forest blaze in New Mexico on June 1.
By
msnbc.com
updated 6/13/2012 2:50:25 PM ET 2012-06-13T18:50:25

President Barack Obama, prodded by Western lawmakers, signed a bill on Wednesday authorizing four more large air tankers to fight wildfires this summer and to relieve the stress on an aging fleet.

The move was especially welcome in Colorado, where the state's largest wildfire in 25 years could still be in its infancy and where forests killed by bark beetles could explode if fires take hold there.

The beetle epidemic "could be a major factor" in terms of what happens this summer, Mike Ferris, a National Incident Fire Center spokesman, told msnbc.com. "You've got millions of acres of dead standing timber" not just in Colorado but across much of the West.

This year is running behind last year in terms of acres burned, but "we're still early in the fire season and just now starting an uphill climb," noted Ferris.

The bill allows the U.S. Forest Service to contract for up to seven new large air tankers, three this year and four next year.

The aircraft will be able to carry 3,000 gallons of retardant, compared to the 2,000 on the existing, older aircraft, Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones told msnbc.com. On top of that, these "next generation" aircraft will be faster.

The service now has contracts providing 17 large tankers -- five of which are deployed to a single incident, the massive High Park Fire in Colorado.

Crews there fear the fire could spread into a national forest where 70 percent of the trees have been killed by beetles.

The incident commander there said Tuesday that while he's had all the air resources he needs so far, he fears that could change.

If other areas see large fires, Bill Hahnenberg told reporters, "we may see pressure to release those earlier rather than later."

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, in lobbying for the tanker provision, cited his concern for communities surrounded by beetle-killed trees.

Northern Colorado "is a beautiful area," he said in a statement Monday, "but it has been severely impacted by the expansion of the bark beetle epidemic in the past two to three years."

Image: Dead pine trees
USGS
These reddish-colored trees in Colorado's northern Williams Fork Mountains have been killed by bark beetles. Eighty percent of the mature lodgepole pine in the range have died.

Congress passed the tanker provision after the June 3 crash of a firefighting plane that killed its two pilots. The 1962 Lockheed P2V was designed as a Cold War-era submarine attack plane and is typical of the aging firefighting fleet.

Lawmakers, some of whom have been pushing for a fleet upgrade for some time, cited the crash as a reason to take action.

"These incidents indicate the need to swiftly replace the aging air fleet and begin contracting new planes for the Forest Service fleet," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a letter to the Forest Service. "Unfortunately, the Forest Service has yet to provide a long-term pathway for aircraft replacement."

Udall, for his part, is trying to get more funding for removal of dead trees as part of a farm bill now before Congress.

"We have limited resources and need to focus on removing trees in and around critical infrastructure, like roads and powerlines," he told msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Firefighters make progress against wildfires

  1. Closed captioning of: Firefighters make progress against wildfires

    >>> firefighters are battling destructive blazes burning out of control in colorado and new mexico . nbc's miguel almaguer joins us from bellvue with the latest. miguel , good morning.

    >> reporter: natalie, a mixed bag here. some evacuees are told they can return back home while other residents are told be prepared to leave at a moment's notice. this is a wildfire in colorado and one in new mexico rages on. though choking billowing smoke can be seen for miles, the flames are difficult to reach. the air attack in colorado 's high park , fire among the most effective weapons slowing a churning blaze feeding through forest land bone dry. still firefighters are making progress.

    >> we're far from the end but we're going the right direction. we continue to have faith and trust in these folks that are running the fire for us.

    >> reporter: the fire here has claimed one life, destroyed or damaged at least 100 structures and today threatens many more. some 600 firefighters are on the ground, extra crews are en route , a grueling five-day fight on the frontline.

    >> they are incredibly brave. oh, my gosh. it's amazing what they do and how close they get to the fire. just love them.

    >> reporter: meantime across colorado 's border in new mexico , a state of emergency has been declared in lincoln county . the little bear fire has devoured more than 200 homes, entire neighborhoods reduced to smoking rubble. the lightning sparked fire has blackened at least 36,000 acres, flames still threatening homes today.

    >> reporter: back here in colorado this 43,000 acre fire is roughly 10% contained. but like in new mexico all eyes will be on the forecast today. wind conditions should be relatively calm. natalie.

    >> we'll get that from al momentarily. miguel almaguer in colorado , thanks.

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