Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article from the Associated Press about the continuing spread of the wildfires that have plagued Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico since November (Fires Spread To Colorado And Arkansas). John Roberts, who handles aviation assets for Oklahoma's Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry, stated that Oklahoma currently has "8 large airtankers, 6 Single Engine Airtankers (AT802s), 6 Type 1 Helicopters (National Guard) and numerous smaller aircraft for supervision and observation". Oklahoma has been innovative in their approach to communications as well. An article in the Muskogee Phoenix from last Friday (Firefighters Aided From Above) related how their Civil Air Patrol had outfitted an aircraft flying at 9,500 feet with radio gear that enabled commanders on the ground to communicate with any other units fighting the fires over a wide area of the state. Measures such as this improve the ability of firefighters to wage war against wildfires more effectively.
But at the same time, there are concerns about a proposal to make $50 million in cuts to rural firefighting funds, including elimination of the federal government's "Rural Firefighters and Emergency Personnel Grants" program, as related in an op/ed article in the Muskogee Phoenix today written by Congressman Dan Boren of Oklahoma (Wildfires Show Need For Rural Firefighter Funding). If these cuts are made, along with additional cuts to the "Rural Fire Assistance Program", who will fight the fires in 2007? As with the proposed cuts to the air-tanker budget mentioned in an earlier entry in this blog, not only could many firefighting aircraft be unavailable, but many volunteers would also be removed from the thinning ranks of firefighters. It seems ironic that, at the very moment funding for aircraft and volunteer firefighters is needed, Congress is doing its level best to eliminate the funds these groups desperately need to exist. It would seem that wildfires are not the only force doing damage to the western U.S.