DENVER – As if 4 million acres of dead, standing timber and an ongoing drought weren’t enough to worry about as Colorado enters the wildfire season, a few Republican senators say it’s past time to prepare for terrorist attacks in the forests.
They’re making the argument to convince colleagues to pay for the state’s own fleet of aerial firefighting tankers. If terrorists ignited several fires at once, the small federal fleet would be overwhelmed, the state senators say.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction – the sponsor of the air tanker bill – said he is worried that large fires in the Colorado River Basin could clog reservoirs and cause a water supply “catastrophe” across the whole American Southwest.
“That is why that is a priority or could be a priority for those who wish us ill will, and those who would like to change the United States and the Western United States,” King said at a hearing for his bill.
Terrorist attacks in the forests have already happened, King’s allies said.
“We know for a fact that forest fires started in California were started by al-Qaida,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, during debate in the Senate on Wednesday.
However, California fire officials say it never happened.
The idea that terrorists are targeting the forests has circulated on conservative online media since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But there’s more to it than conjecture.
Harvey got his information from William Scott, a Colorado Springs author and longtime journalist for Aviation Week & Space Technology. Scott is an expert on aerial firefighting, and he served on a 2002 blue-ribbon panel on air-tanker safety. He testified in a Senate hearing for King’s bill and said he is convinced that people with links to al-Qaida started fires in California in 2011.
In an interview, Scott said his sources were California law enforcement and a “longtime CalFire guy.” CalFire is the state’s firefighting agency.
“There’s a real reluctance in the government system to talk about this. It’s, I think, because they’re hoping against hope the terrorists won’t do it,” Scott said.
In spring 2012, al-Qaida’s English-language online magazine, Inspire, published an article called “It Is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb,” which featured instructions on how to build an incendiary bomb to light forests on fire. The article recommended Montana as a target.
CalFire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said her agency has looked into terrorist threats against forests, including the Inspire article, and found nothing.
CalFire officials went so far as to follow the instructions to build the firebomb. They didn’t find it to be any more destructive than any other firestarting device that arsonists use, Hutchinson said.
“I am not aware of any fires that are caused by these devices or by al-Qaida,” Hutchinson said.
However, arson in the forests remains a serious threat, even without the specter of terrorists.
“Really, arson is arson, regardless of how it’s propagated,” Hutchinson said.
The idea of a “forest jihad” comes up every few years, from sources with varying degrees of credulity.
Last fall, Russia’s Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, warned that terrorists were responsible for wildfires across Europe in 2012.
In June 2003, the FBI’s Denver office warned land-management agencies that a terrorist in custody had talked about plotting to set fires around the West, according to several media reports at the time.
Scott’s claim about the 2011 fires in California wasn’t the first about that state.
The website Before ItsNews.com wrote in 2003 that fires that year in California were set by terrorists. But on Friday, the website was featuring a story that said the Boston Marathon bombing was staged, along with a story headlined “Red Alert!!! Earthquake Triggered Nuclear Hellstorm Awaits America.”
For firefighters like CalFire’s Hutchinson, there’s enough danger in these drought years without looking for more enemies.
“We just tell everybody, it’s summer, it’s dry, the threat’s there,” Hutchinson said.