Western states face debilitating drought - Air tankers reconsidered for fire duty


The Olympian

SANTA FE. N.M. -- The U.S. Forest Service's national fire plan coordinator told Western governors Sunday that the agency is prepared to consider returning a limited number of heavy air tankers to fire lines following a move to ground the aircraft over safety concerns.

Corbin Newman, addressing the Western Governors Association on Sunday, said the Forest Service has agreed to a plan with federal transportation officials to review proposals from new contractors to fly the tankers.

Officials will scrutinize maintenance information, previous inspections and other documents about the aircraft's flying life before considering its return to service on forest fires, Newman said.

That comes after federal officials grounded 33 tankers amid safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people. The tankers can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant on forest fires.

The associations' three-day conference comes as wildfires continue to burn across parts of the West. In New Mexico alone, three current fires have charred more than 73,000 acres.

DENVER -- Drought conditions in parts of the West are the worst in 500 years, and Western governors will meet today with federal climate officials to assess conditions and discuss what steps can be taken to prepare for what could be a dire summer for crops, wildfires and drinking water.
The governors, from 18 states from Kansas to Hawaii and Arizona to Alaska, are meeting in Santa Fe on the first day of summer for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association. Their meeting comes as:

-The drought in the Colorado River Basin, which is the main water supply for seven states and the big metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas, is probably as bad as or worse than the basin's biggest drought in 1590-94. The U.S. Geological Survey says in a report, which studied rings on trees among other things, that the flow of the Colorado River the past two years was barely half that of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

-The nation ended its third-warmest spring on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Near-record warmth in March prematurely melted mountain snow the region relies on for drinking water and crop irrigation.

-The long-term drought picture "remained virtually unchanged" with no break in sight in the latest Drought Monitor, published weekly by NOAA. The report says at least half the rangeland and pastures in California, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona was in poor condition.

-Las Vegas, the nation's fastest-growing metro area, might have to declare a drought emergency at year's end if the water level in Lake Mead drops to its lowest point in 40 years as predicted.

The National Weather Service predicts above-normal heat across the West and below-normal rain for the Northwest in July.

Most of the governors' states have suffered four to six years of drought that has sapped supplies, hurt recreation and damaged crops. The governors will meet with the head of NOAA, retired Navy vice admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, to discuss an early warning system that could help them plan for drought and predict wildfire conditions.



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