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."
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.
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