by Pam Zubeck
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has been an ardent supporter of forest health and wildland firefighting, and he continues to probe for more information to enhance how fires are managed.
A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Udall wrote a letter Monday to Northern Command leader Gen. Charles Jacoby and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell asking for a retrospective for the Black Forest Fire.
Udall, along with Colorado's other Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, instigated a major study following the Waldo Canyon Fire that investigates the ecological, social and operational issues involved in fighting that blaze, which claimed 347 homes in Colorado Springs last year.
In his latest effort, Udall thanks Jacoby and Tidwell for their participation in the Black Forest Fire and what further lessons might be learned. He also asked them to explain procedural changes that made the rapid response possible.
From a news release:
Udall has been a leading voice for ensuring that Colorado and the West have adequate resources to prepare for the threat of wildfire, including pressing the U.S. Air Force to quickly transfer and repurpose excess aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to fight wildfires. He also led the fight to ensure the U.S. Forest Service was able to cut through red tape and secure seven next-generation air tankers. One of the next-generation air tankers Udall fought to acquire helped fight the Black Forest Fire.
Udall also pushed to pass a bipartisan amendment to the U.S. Senate's 2014 budget to allocate $100 million more for wildland firefighting and he successfully secured federal funds to repair drinking-water supplies damaged by 2012's Waldo Canyon and High Park fires.
Here's his letter to Jacoby and Tidwell:
General Charles Jacoby
Commander, U.S. Northern Command
Peterson Air Force Base
Director, U.S. Forest Service
Dear General Jacoby and Chief Tidwell,
Last August, in the wake of the Waldo Canyon fire, I requested that you convene an After Action Review (AAR) to draw and incorporate lessons from the coordinated Department of Defense (DOD) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) response to what was then the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history. Now, in the wake of the Black Forest fire, I want to again extend my gratitude for the tremendous work done by thousands of local, state, and federal firefighters, including the men and women of the USFS and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM). As you know, each disaster response presents unique challenges requiring innovative responses, and with these fires now contained, I am requesting a status update on your progress to improve our fire response framework even further.
I was relieved to see that military aircraft from Fort Carson and the Colorado National Guard were activated early in the Black Forest Fire to drop water and fly spotter missions for ground personnel, and eventually dropped approximately 30,000 gallons of water on the fire. On the ground, the 40 personnel from the Colorado's National Guard Reaction Force who manned security checkpoints in the Black Forest area demonstrated the type of swift cooperation required in rapidly evolving disaster scenarios.
To continue this learning and increasingly critical cooperation, I specifically would like to know where you are in developing a formal interagency wildfire operating plan, or necessary agreement for Colorado’s Front Range. I would also appreciate detailed information regarding the decision-making and approval processes for mobilizing military equipment and personnel to fight wildfire. Although the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires have resulted in tragic losses of life and property, the availability of local military resources and command structures helped lessen the damage. As such I believe that the lessons learned from these disasters must be captured, assessed, and applied as necessary for the benefit of the Front Range, as well as other communities with growing wildland urban interfaces.
As you work together to bridge any identified gaps, clarify expectations and expand readiness of key assets, I would appreciate details on current mobilization processes and procedures. For example, how do current laws, regulations, and interagency processes affect mobilization of military and federal assets such as the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS), military helicopters, heavy equipment, and troops? Additionally, I would appreciate an update on the status of any cooperative agreements and/or Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between DOD and USFS. During last year’s AAR, all parties involved in the Waldo Canyon fire response agreed that the activation of a Military Dual-Status Commander helped to streamline the communication and resources between the two agencies. As such, I would ask for information about other procedural changes that have occurred to improve operations. For example, I am interested in details about specific collaborations, training processes, and communication channels that occur between fire seasons. Finally, I understand that the rapid activation of federal assets was authorized due to an agreement commonly referred to as the “72 hour exception.” If that is the case, I would also appreciate information about how and when that exemption was implemented in the Black Forest fire and whether the same exemption might apply to future fire responses.
While there can be no doubt that the dedicated and tireless efforts by USFS and DOD personnel helped to prevent further tragedy, all signs indicate that major fires like the ones Coloradans have experienced over the past two summers will occur more frequently in the future. As such, my goal is to build on the strong existing response foundation to ensure future missions are increasingly successful, speedy, and well-coordinated. Your assistance in this effort is truly appreciated, and again, I extend my profound thanks for the work done by the men and women of the USFS and NORTHCOM on our behalf every day.