April 14, 2014 Updated: April 14, 2014 at 5:15 pm
Colorado's U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said the military is ready for another season of battling wildfires from the air, but remains worried that planned cuts could impact readiness.
The Democrat visited U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs on Monday and met with top brass about wildfire preparedness. The command provides Pentagon support in natural disasters, including the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon fires that hit the Pikes Peak region in back-to-back years.
Key assets for fighting fires, Air Force C-130s that drop retardant, are based at Peterson.
"I'm confident that Peterson Air Force Base and Northern Command leaders will have their tankers ready," Udall said after a meeting with Northern Command boss Gen. Chuck Jacoby.
But Udall expressed concern that planned cuts to Peterson's 302nd Airlift Wing, a reserve unit that includes the firefighting planes, could harm future readiness.
Under an Air Force budget plan announced in March, the wing would lose 200 airmen and four of its 12 C-130 aircraft. The cut would eliminate the 52nd Airlift Squadron, the reserve wing's lone squadron of full-time airmen.
"I'm not happy with that," Udall said.
Udall staffers said the senator is examining measures that would keep the planes and airmen in Colorado Springs and is waiting for the Air Force to offer reasoning for the cuts.
The service has said it is downsizing its fleet of four-engined C-130 transports as the war in Afghanistan winds down and the need for the propeller-driven planes decreases.
Udall and others have expressed worry that cutting the 302nd's fleet could hamper firefighting if the remaining aircraft are called upon for other Air Force missions.
This year, before the cuts take hold, Udall said the military will be ready to augment firefighters if needed.
"The military has heard the call and they are ready to rise to the sound of the guns," Udall said.
The Forest Service, though, isn't in the same shape, Udall said.
The Forest Service was expected to reach an agreement for seven new firefighting planes this year, but has contracted for just two of them.
Udall said he's pushing the Forest Service to bring the planes on-line quickly to battle summer wildfires.
Air tankers don't extinguish fires, but drop retardant that forms fire lines. That helps firefighters on the ground guide the fire and protect people and houses.
Udall said Northern Command is ready for big fires this year, but isn't forecasting the catastrophic blazes that hit Colorado Springs in 2012 and 2013.
"It looks like it will be a normal fire season," he said.