Tester: Forest Service must modernize airtankers for fighting wildfires
Senator concerned agency has 'failed to develop' plan for fleet of aging planes
(U.S. SENATE) – In preparation for wildfire season, Senator Jon Tester is calling on the U.S. Forest Service to modernize the fleet of airtankers used to fight fires.
The Forest Service currently contracts only 11 firefighting airplanes, down 75 percent from a decade ago. These planes deliver fire retardant to quickly contain fires, but many are so old spare parts are no longer available.
Tester is concerned that the aging fleet under contract to the Forest Service will be unable to handle future wildfire seasons and wants the Forest Service to pursue a "clear plan forward" to upgrade its fleet.
“Aircraft on average are 50 years old, far beyond their expected service life,” Tester wrote the Forest Service. “I urge you to contract a new air fleet in a way that quickly increases the Forest Service’s wildland firefighting capabilities while protecting taxpayer dollars.”
Tester called the Forest Service’s recently proposed modernization plan vague and said it fails to outline a clear plan for getting the next generation of airtankers into service.
“It’s important that the [airtanker] contract be awarded to companies who are capable of providing the Forest Service with a modern large airtanker fleet that is ready today,” Tester wrote. “We cannot wait for companies who aren’t ready to provide these crucial services immediately.”
Airtankers are effective tools for fighting wildfires. They are critical to keeping wildfires small and less costly, saving the Forest Service $300 million to $450 million per year.
Wildfires burn millions of acres every year in the United States. Drought, warm temperatures, and large amounts of fuel, such as dead, beetle-killed trees, all create elevated fire conditions.
Tester’s letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is available below and online HERE.
February 27, 2012
The Honorable Tom Tidwell
United States Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Chief Tidwell:
I write today to express my concerns about the Forest Service’s readiness and preparedness to fight wildland fires throughout the western United States. I am particularly concerned that the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy, issued by the Forest Service on February 10th, failed to develop a detailed plan to modernize and maintain an adequate fleet of modern large airtankers. I compliment the Forest Service for acknowledging in the Strategy that it is time to move forward with the modernization of the large airtanker fleet and time is of the essence. I believe we need a clear plan forward, one that includes identifying funding in Fiscal Year 2012 and awarding contracts for new airtankers this year.
The number of airtankers commissioned by the Forest Service has declined from 43 in 2000 to 11 in 2011, with minimal increases in other air support infrastructure, such as helicopters. The large airtanker aircraft currently in operation on average are 50 years old, far beyond their expected service life. While the large airtanker modernization effort has floundered for years, we have seen more wildfires, growing counts of acres burned and expanding threats to communities as the Wildland/Urban Interface continues to grow.
Although the Forest Service has published the Strategy, I am concerned that it fails to outline a clear path, including funding, to modernization, which threatens the success of getting a next-generation fleet of aircraft in service. In the Strategy the Forest Service admits that the current large airtanker fleet is quickly being retired from service. Thus the first step is to begin contracting for modern large airtankers. Some companies, over the past several years, have taken the first steps of purchasing, retrofitting and certifying new aircraft to be prepared for this transition this year.
It is my understanding that the Forest Service is in the process of evaluating offers in response to a Request for Proposal for modern large airtankers. I further understand the Forest Service may be hesitant to commit to funding for this needed asset during Fiscal Year 2012. Without these awards, the Forest Service cannot modernize the large air tanker fleet in an efficient and responsive manner, which will leave many Americans at risk this fire season. I understand that budgets are limited, but even in these fiscally conservative times we must continue to invest in critically important infrastructure. Thus, I urge you to find the funds to contract for the maximum number of modern airtanker aircraft this fiscal year in a way that quickly increases the Forest Service’s wildland firefighting capabilities while protecting taxpayer dollars.
It is clear that by spending money up front to be prepared with a strong airtanker fleet, the Forest Service can save money and property. As the Forest Service cites in its report:
Airtankers play a key role in successful initial attack, which is one of the most difficult and critical components of wildfire management. Successful initial attack of new and emerging fires that qualify for suppression is a critical part of keeping unwanted wildlifes small and less costly.
As the Forest Service looks to modernize its large airtanker fleet away from the aging P2V aircraft, it’s critical that the new contracts be awarded to companies who have a track record with the U.S. Forest Service. It’s also important that the contract be awarded to companies who are capable of providing the U.S. Forest Service with a modern large airtanker fleet that is ready today. We cannot wait for companies who aren’t ready to provide these crucial services immediately.
I look forward to working with you to identify the necessary funding to allow you to move forward with this essential modernization effort and I appreciate your consideration of this request.