VAIL, Colorado - Red tape is tangling efforts for replacement Forest Service air tankers, Sen. Mark Udall said.
"The tankers are tied up in red tape and may not be ready for this summer's fire season," Udall told a group of local firefighters and police.
The Forest Service's entire fleet now is composed of 10 Korean War-era tankers, Udall said.
As a backup measure, Udall said he has asked the U.S. Air Force to outfit seven C-130 transport planes as makeshift air tankers before this summer's fire season.
Udall was in the West Vail fire station Sunday morning to listen to concerns from local firefighters and police about this summer's fire season.
"This year could be the perfect storm with drought and budget challenges," said Ross Wilmore, a Forest Service fire management officer with the Eagle Ranger District. "You can't just throw money at the problem. You also have to throw brains at the problem. A lot of smart people are thinking about what we may face."
Colorado's February snowpack remains at 72 percent of normal and 90 percent of last year's readings, said the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But last year, the reservoirs and rivers were full. This year, they're not, said Scott Fitzsimmons, White River National Forest supervisor.
"Last year's drought followed three to four years of good water weather. Now we're enduring two dry years in a row," Fitzsimmons said. "Even though it's snowing outside, it's never too early to talk about preparedness."
Mother Nature helps. Human behavior helps, too.
"Are we prepared? Yes. But that doesn't guarantee anything," Fitzsimmons said.
The forest's life cycles have been going around for 10,000 years.
"That's not going to change," Fitzsimmons said.
People who live near forests need to take some responsibility for their own safety.
"The best tools a homeowner can use is a weed eater and a rake," Udall said.
Fitzsimmons said he's living it firsthand. He said his family just bought a house, and when they wanted to create a more fire-safe zone around it, they ran into opposition from their homeowners association. Firefighters in the room didn't have much sympathy for decorative shrubbery.
"When a fire is coming, we're going to chop everything down. It's heartbreaking after a fire to go back and see how much might have been prevented," said John Patterson, with the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District.
Last summer was devastating, and 2013 is expected to be more of the same, Udall said.
"Lots of old-timers said they'd never seen it that dry. We might have been lucky," Fitzsimmons said.
We're not in this alone. Last summer, firefighters came from 48 states to help Colorado, Wilmore said.
Local, state and federal governments spent $1.85 billion fighting wildfires last summer, Udall said.
How much will be available this summer remains tied up in red tape, Udall said. That means local firefighters won't know what resources they'll have when the fire season starts, they said.
"This is one example of how our lack of action creates uncertainty," Udall said.
This year's fire season is already here, said Homeland Security's Chuck Vale.
A weekend blaze scorched 800 acres in southeast Colorado, he said.