CAL FIRE has expressed concerns about the Forest Service’s recently released “Large Air Tanker Modernization Strategy.”

On March 7, CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott wrote a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell outlining the state’s worries about the Forest Service’s aircraft strategy, including the number of aircraft.

According to Larry Chambers, media relations officer in the Forest Service’s Washington Office, “We have reviewed Director Pimlott’s letter and we are currently drafting a response.”

Pimlott made four main points. First was lack of connection between the Forest Service air tanker support and the fire support needs of individual states.

“Fire fighting aircraft are a very limited resource and, therefore, it is critical that the national strategy includes collaboration with the states to ensure the plan provides for efficient and integrated use of all assets,” Pimlott wrote.

Pimlott critized the Forest Service’s estimated need for 18 to 28 new aircraft. “The identified optimum number … is insufficient to meet the needs of the combined federal, state and local wildland firefighting missions,” he said bluntly.

A decade long drought is continuing and expanding its area throughout the west. Pimlott is concerned about the resources available if multiple large fires occur. More than half of California’s worst fires have occurred in the past decade, he noted.

Acquiring aircraft that can transport fire retardant and water or be converted into cargo transports or firefighting aircraft was not supported. Pimlott recommends limiting the firefighting air tankers to carrying retardant or water.

He also criticized the Forest Service for failing to address the use of very large air tankers. One has been tested in the west during the 2009 and 2010 fire seasons. Pimlott urged its continued use for areas where large amounts of retardant are needed, thus freeing up other tankers for initial air attack.

CAL FIRE has its own aviation program and recognizes that both the federal and state program help each other; but he admonished Tidwell, “Unless there are a sufficient number of federal air tankers, CAL FIRE cannot continue to support extended attack fires on federal lands without adversely affecting our aviation program.”