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Gazette Premium Content Forest Service expands firefighting tanker fleet in Colorado, the West

Associated Press Updated: May 20, 2014 at 3:24 pm

DENVER — As the Obama administration pushes Congress to ensure that enough money is available to fight destructive wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday it was adding four aircraft to its firefighting fleet ahead of what's expected to be another hot, dry summer in the West.

In a statement, the service said it will have a second DC10 and three smaller planes in service in the coming weeks to support over 10,000 firefighters "in the face of what is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season in the southwest."

The Forest Service expects to exceed this year's budget in July, two months before this fiscal year ends. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed 2015 budget proposals by the administration Tuesday in Colorado, where deadly fires in 2012 and 2013 destroyed hundreds of homes.

The 2015 budget request for firefighting is $2.2 billion, up from $2.1 billion in 2014. It also would set up an additional $954 million disaster funding pool, to avoid dipping into fire-prevention programs. Borrowing from other programs would only occur if the $954 million in disaster spending is exhausted.

With its announcement Tuesday, the Forest Service brought its fleet to 21 large airtankers and more than 100 helicopters. About a decade ago the Forest Service had more than 40 of the big tankers at its disposal. According to federal analysts, the fleet hit a low of eight aircraft at one point last year, depleted by age and worries over the ability of the planes to stay in the sky.

Colorado's senators welcomed Tuesday's Forest Service announcement.

"I am proud the U.S. Forest Service has heeded my calls to aggressively augment its air tanker fleet, but we need to stay vigilant," Sen. Mark Udall said.

Sen. Michael Bennet said the new tankers "will be crucial to fighting wildfires and protecting our communities, critical infrastructure, and natural resources."

During his stop in Denver, the agriculture secretary also announced prevention measures that include designations to help 94 national forest areas in 35 states address insects and diseases that turn trees into tinder.

"Millions of acres in Colorado's forests and throughout the country have been devastated by insect and disease epidemics," said Bennet, who introduced a bill on forest insect and disease treatment last year that was co-sponsored by Udall, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and then-Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service banned exploding targets in northern Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and portions of South Dakota in part to avoid wildfire risks.

In drought-stricken California, wildfires that broke out in San Diego County last week caused more than $20 million in damage. The state firefighting agency went to peak staffing in the first week of April, instead of its usual start in mid-May.

Thousands of additional firefighters may be needed in the future, California Gov. Jerry Brown told ABC's "This Week," adding that California is on the front lines of climate change.

In Colorado, red flag warnings on the risk of wildfires were posted for Colorado Springs and other parts of the state as well as New Mexico and Arizona. The danger is also high in the Texas Panhandle and southwestern Kansas.

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