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Gazette Premium Content EDITORIAL: Washington must do more, not less to stop federal fires

The Gazette editorial Published: March 15, 2014

After two summers of hellish infernos along the Front Range and throughout the West, this is no time for federal authorities to reduce their firefighting arsenal. But that's what they are about to do, again.

It's more than reasonable to expect our federal officials to control fires that frequently rip through their poorly managed forests. When fires in federal forests are allowed to grow, they work their way into cities where they ruin property and lives. We know this all too well in Colorado Springs.

When the Waldo Canyon fire began in the Pike National Forest in 2012, just west of the city, federal authorities fiddled around for almost three days before getting their firefighting aircraft off the ground - even though they sat minutes away at Peterson Air Force Base. The government was so short of planes it diverted an Air Force C-130 crew to a smaller fire in Boulder as flames worked their way toward the Mountain Shadows neighborhood on the infamous day of June 26. As the crew returned to the Springs, hundreds of homes they had defended earlier in the day were ablaze.

"It was heartbreaking," Lt. Col. Dave Condit, who was among the C-130 pilots, told The Gazette in 2012.

The Air Force was involved mostly because the Obama administration slashed the Forest Service air tanker fleet from dozens of planes to only 11. At the time of the Waldo Canyon fire, more than 50 fires were burning in federal forests.

Amid some of the most destructive, drought-era wildfires, the Obama administration has continued slashing money for federal fire mitigation and suppression.

The latest move to further reduce government's firefighting capacity involves proposed budget cuts at Peterson Air Force Base. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., quizzed U.S. Northern Command director Gen. Chuck Jacoby on Thursday about the ramifications budget cuts will have on fire suppression. The cuts would cost Peterson 200 airmen and four of the C-130 aircraft used in fighting fires. As explained by Gazette military reporter Tom Roeder, the cuts would eliminate the 52nd Airlift Squadron - "the reserve wing's lone squadron of full-time airmen."

The squadron helped battle the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire and last summer's Black Forest Fire - the two most destructive wildfires in Colorado history.

My biggest concern would be crews," Jacoby said in response to Udall's question. "Those are terrific crews, fearless men and women. It's as tough flying as any flying."

Jacoby promised to continue defending the squadron's role in saving property and lives. We encourage Gov. John Hickenlooper, Udall, Colo. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, and all other members of Colorado's congressional delegation to impart common sense on the Obama administration. Stop them from making another cut to federal firefighting capabilities that are already ridiculously scarce.

Local governments all over the country have required reasonable building standards that better protect homes from fire. Some jurisdictions require sprinkler systems. Most have banned wood shingles. Many require fire-retardant siding. Voters have raised their taxes to pay for more local fire suppression. It's not asking too much that federal officials also prepare to reduce fire danger posed by property they manage.

Whether they beef up firefighting assets of the Forest Service or the military, federal government has an obligation to keep its fires from raging out of control and threatening personal property, communities, lives and wildlife. This is a time to add firefighting capability, not a time to deplete it.

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