May 16, 2004 11:00 pm

A lot of people will keep an eye on the sky for the rest of May and June, hoping Mother Nature brings abundant rainfall. If not, the area could be in for a whopper of a wildfire season. The decision by the Forest Service and Interior Department to ground the nation's fleet of 33 air tankers for safety reasons spells trouble — and has a lot of people doing rain dances.

The grounding is unfortunate at a time when La Grande just renovated its air tanker base. But consider the consequences of the National Transportation Safety Board not recommending this tough choice. Between 1994 and 2002, three air tankers crashed, killing seven crew members. That's unacceptable. When you consider the average age of the tankers — almost half a century — and the stress on those planes of carrying loads of retardant into extreme terrain and challenging weather conditions and visibility, the decision makes sense.

Of course, it's the ground troops that make the biggest difference in fighting a fire. But these brave souls need all the help they can get facing this force of nature — wildfire — which can create its own weather, including even mini-tornados.

The loss of the air tankers is regrettable, and would lessen the effectiveness in fighting fires, but the loss might not be permanent. Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Greg Walden, R-Ore., are among those scurrying to find solutions, such as getting FAA certification to prove the flightworthiness of at least some of the air tanker fleet. The

La Grande base could also replace the tankers that might have been based here with other aviation resources such as helicopters or helitankers, single-engine air tankers or Canadian water-scooping air tankers.

Air power is just one of many tools in the fight on wildfires. The federal government, if it grounds the air tanker fleet, needs to provide the funds necessary to replace it. In the meantime, area residents should all be rooting on the snowpack and doing a rain dance for the rest of May and June.


Want to bellyache about your elected officials? Well, first you have to vote, or all the bellyaching in the world won't mean much. Yeah, that's right, vote.

Several hotly contested races are on Tuesday's vote-by-mail election ballot, including a county commissioner primary and district attorney race and the Union strong-mayor choice. Citizens should do their duty in a democracy by overcoming the complacent mindset common these days. Vote.

Want to get rid of a risk-averse career politician, an image-driven politician or one governed by polls? Want to reward an incumbent who is doing a splendid job and deserves more time to get the job done right? Vote.

If you haven't mailed your ballot yet, don't. Deliver it by hand to your community drop box or to the county clerk's drop box at the county courthouse. Ballots must arrive at the clerk's office by 8 p.m. Tuesday. Remember to vote.