Pilots with the Wyoming Air National Guard talk outside a special C-130 cargo plane fitted with tanks that can blast 3,000 gallons of retardant on a wildfire in just five seconds. The military cargo planes are at the Wyoming Air National Guard base in Cheyenne this week for annual training. The military planes are flown by Guard pilots working under the direction of U.S. Forest Service personnel. (Trevor Hughes/USA Today)
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CHEYENNE, WYO. — Firefighters facing down a slow-starting wildfire season in most of the West are ready with more retardant-dropping aircraft than last year, and experts say drought-stricken California may need all the help they can bring to bear.
At this windswept Air National Guard base, pilots and ground personnel are practicing how to use some of the largest firefighting aircraft available, eight military C-130 cargo planes equipped with tanks blasting out up to 3,000 of gallons of retardant in as little as five seconds.
"In a perfect world, they would never call me," said Col. Chuck Davis, who commands the military-civilian aviation partnership from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
According to the NIFC's National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook, most of the country is listed at "normal" wildfire danger in the monthly update issued Thursday. However, California, southern New Mexico and Arizona, and southern Alaska are listed at "above normal" risk for May. The risk for much of the South, including Arkansas and Tennessee, is listed as below normal. Fire forecasters say the wet spring across much of the Midwest and East has kept a lid on fires.
About 2,000 fewer fires than usual have burned so far in 2014, and those fires have burned fewer acres than usual, said Robyn Broyles, a NIFC spokeswoman. The United States has seen about 18,000 wildfires across the country, many of them in drought-stricken California.
"We're below the number of fires and acres burned for the year," she said. "There aren't as many starts. And that's a good thing."
California remains the exception. The entire state is experiencing drought, and firefighters there have already responded to 1,100 fires, twice the usual number for this time of year. Raging wildfires can destroy suburban neighborhoods, weaken hillsides and pollute drinking water. They also send lung-choking smoke far across the country and block visitors from accessing national parks and forests.
The Etiwanda Fire in the Etiwanda Preserve north of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., began about 8 a.m. Wednesday. It has burned about 1,000 acres and is 10 percent contained, according to the Incident Information System. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The number of fires and acres burned isn't necessarily the best gauge of how bad a fire season can get: Although 2013 saw a record-low number of wildfires nationwide, it was one of the deadliest for firefighters. The tragic Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona killed 19 firefighters, the highest death toll for a single fire in 80 years.
Last year also saw the Black Forest Fire, Colorado's most destructive wildfire in history, burn more than 500 homes and kill at least two people. And the Rim Fire — a massive blaze near the entrance to iconic Yosemite National Park — was the largest ever in the Sierra Nevada region of California, burning an area one-third the size of Rhode Island.
The 2013 California fire season was so bad that it technically never ended, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
"Earlier this year, when everyone was getting historic snow, we saw not a drop of rain," said Berlant.
California aside, the Southwest has remained generally moist and cool, Broyles said. That's helping reduce the risk and intensity of fires, which burn best under warm, dry, windy conditions.
Climate change is being blamed for lengthening the nation's wildfire season, with scientists predicting larger and more frequent fires. The U.S. Forest Service says the wildfire season now averages 78 days longer than it did in the mid-1980s.
That reality has NIFC, which coordinates national wildland firefighting for multiple federal agencies, looking to the skies for help.
Five new, large air tankers are slated to join the aerial attack this season, along with the military units. The Forest Service also has signed a five-year deal to rent a water-scooping plane that can refill just by skimming along a lake's surface, rather than returning to an airport.
And nine additional small planes called "single-engine air tankers" are being deployed to where they're needed this year, rather than based around the country awaiting a fire to break out nearby. They are also on staggered contracts, giving coverage longer into the fall than usual, Broyles said.