10:16 PM PDT on Friday, May 20, 2011

By BEN GOAD
Washington Bureau

Special Section: Inland Wildfires

WASHINGTON – On the cusp of another California wildfire season, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is raising concerns about the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to complete plans to modernize its aerial firefighting fleet.

“The absence of a modern and robust aerial firefighting program endangers residents who live in the wildland-urban interface across the nation,” Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote this week in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service.

Wildland-urban interface areas — places where homes and communities are next to forests — are particularly abundant in inland Southern California , home to the heavily populated San Bernardino National Forest. Firefighting planes, air tankers and helicopters have proven vital in efforts to extinguish scores of blazes that would otherwise be impossible to stop, given the forest’s rugged terrain and the few mountain roads.

A year ago this week, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a Senate subcommittee that the agency was on track to complete by January reviews of nighttime aerial firefighting operations and the optimum mix of air tankers and helicopters in the national fleet.

Feinstein sought an update in mid-February. The request met with silence until this month, when Vilsack wrote back saying the plans would not be completed until August.

Vilsack explained that the agency’s Helicopter Night Operations Study has identified “dozens of hazards” that must be addressed before the plan can be completed or implemented.

“Given these risks, it is imperative that the ramifications of each of the presented alternatives be thoroughly evaluated to ensure that this effort can be undertaken safely and effectively,” he wrote on May 3.

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