Tester calls for more resources to fight Montana’s wildfires

Senator says Congress failing to adopt policies that contain, prevent fires

(U.S. SENATE) – With parts of eleven Montana counties facing major fires and the American West on track for a record fire season, Senator Jon Tester is calling on Congress to provide the nation’s firefighters with the resources they need to protect Americans.

Fires are raging from the Big Sky State down to New Mexico. More than 32,000 people were recently evacuated in Colorado and hundreds of homes have been destroyed or threatened in Utah. In Montana, six counties and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation are in states of emergency.

Tester, who recently called on the Forest Service to develop a long-term firefighting plan, said that Congress needs to start providing firefighters with more tools to fight this season’s fires – while also improving planning for future fire seasons.

“We’ve evacuated over 200 homes in Helena and experts on the ground are saying they have never seen conditions like these so early in the season,” Tester said on the Senate floor. “Yet Congress has consistently reduced resources for the Forest Service. We need to commit to providing proper resources to protect our communities and prevent catastrophic wildfires in the first place.”

Tester also thanked Montana’s firefighters for their brave efforts, saying “you risk your lives every day for folks you’ve never met.”

Tester highlighted Congress’s cuts to the Hazardous Fuels Reduction initiative that removes underbrush and trees that fuel fires, as well as its reductions to a fund dedicated to responding to fire outbreaks. Tester also sought to rally support for his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which would reduce the risk of fire by improving forest health near communities.

“For four years, I have worked to pass a forest management bill that would reduce these trees and improve the health of the exact forests where these fires are raging in Montana,” Tester said.

The Forest Service’s budget has shrunk over the last 20 years, even as the number, cost, and frequency of fires increase. The number of firefighting airtankers under contract with the Forest Service is down 75 percent from a decade ago, and two planes crashed earlier this month. 

Tester identified the Forest Service’s inadequate fire season preparation earlier this year, saying that the agency needed to “swiftly replace its aging airtanker fleet.”

Record heat and high winds are fueling fires across western states. For the latest on Montana’s fires, click HERE.

Text of Tester’s floor speech on wildfires is below. Video is available online HERE.


As prepared for delivery
Senator Jon Tester
Floor Speech
Western Wildfires
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mr./Madame President, I rise today to make sure Congress is aware of what’s happening across the American West.

Thirty-two thousand people were just evacuated from their homes in Colorado. In Utah and New Mexico, hundreds of homes have been destroyed or are under threat. And in my state of Montana, five counties are in states of emergency, as seven major fires rage across the state.

We’ve evacuated over 200 homes in Helena, with plumes of smoke billowing behind the state capitol. A coal mine in Eastern Montana has been evacuated and the fires that threaten it has burned nearly sixty thousand acres in less than a day.

Experts on the ground are saying they have never seen conditions like these so early in the fire season, with wildfires burning through beetle-killed areas with increasing speed. Now, these beetle-killed areas are areas that are dead due to pine bark beetle infestations. The trees are dead and dry and they explode when they catch on fire.

Yesterday winds gusted up to fifty-five miles per hour, grounding aircraft and preventing them attacking the fires early on.

But the conditions for these wildfires didn’t just happen overnight. 

Mr./Madame President, the problem is the dry climate, the lack of preparation and lack of resources available to contain these fires.

I first want to express my sincerest appreciation to the brave firefighters battling these blazes. On behalf of Montanans and folks across the West, thank you for all that you do. You risk your lives every day for folks you’ve never met. 

We owe you our respect and our gratitude, and my thoughts and prayers are with you.

But Mr./Madame President, we also owe them the RESOURCES they need to efficiently fight these fires. And we owe them POLICIES that will best benefit the landscape they are working so hard to protect.

Forest Service fire officials say that there are three parts to preventing and controlling wildfires. The first is reducing hazardous fuels, especially in the wildland urban interface.  

The second is protecting towns with community wildfire plans and implementing defensible space around structures.

And third… we must provide and be ready with the resources to fight fires once they start.

Yet Congress has consistently reduced the resources set aside for the Forest Service to proactively reduce the risk presented by fires.

Hazardous Fuels Reduction Funding has declined over the last few years. And this year, the Administration proposed to continue reducing these funds.  

And the House of Representatives is also failing to give the Forest Service the tools it needs to address this growing problem by playing politics with solutions that will improve the health of the EXACT forests where these fires are raging in Montana.

For four years, I have worked to pass a forest management bill that would reduce these trees providing the dangerous fuel for two of these fires.

Additionally, the Senate created the FLAME wildfire account to specifically put money aside for this exact kind of emergency situation. Yet this year the President’s budget reduces the FLAME account by nearly a half a billion dollars.

Mr./Madame President, we’ve been robbing this account to keep the Forest Service afloat. But the Forest Service has still lost nearly forty percent of its purchasing power over the last twenty years as the number, cost and frequency of these fires increase. 

Back in 2000, there were more than forty forest fire fighting planes—today, there are ten. And of those nine of them are from of a fleet of planes built during the Korean War.

This spring I asked the Chief of the Forest Service if we were ready in case of a bad fire season this year. He admitted that the Forest Service did not have the resources to deal with an above average fire year.

Mr./Madame President, this issue won’t go away when fire season comes to an end. With large parts of the West getting hotter and drier, our efforts to improve forest health and give firefighters the resources they need CANNOT stop when the weather gets cold.

We need to commit to providing proper resources to the firefighters today who are protecting our communities. And we also need to provide the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management with the tools and resources they need to prevent catastrophic wildfire in the first place. 

Some of us have been talking about Hazardous Fuels reduction in western forests before today, but it has fallen on deaf ears. Now, I ask you to heed our call and provide the necessary resources.

Mr./Madame President, Montanans and folks across the West are evacuating their homes. Firefighters are risking their lives. We need to step up and help them today. And we need to responsibly invest in resources and land management policies that will make a difference in the future.

Thank you Mr./Madame President, and I yield the floor.