Tester questions Forest Service readiness for fire season, calls for action

Forest Service chief says ‘shortage of resources’ possible

(U.S. SENATE) – With a strong fire season possible for Montana this year, Senator Jon Tester is pushing the U.S. Forest Service to ramp up its firefighting capabilities.

Tester today told the Forest Service that it needs to quickly upgrade its fleet of airtankers used to fight fires.  The Forest Service currently contracts only 11 firefighting airplanes, down 75 percent from a decade ago.  The agency plans to add only three planes this year.

“We’re set up for potentially a pretty big fire year,” Tester told Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at a Senate hearing on the Forest Service.  “Can you tell me how confident you are that we’ll be able to shut unwanted fires down when they occur and effectively deal with them?”

Tidwell told Tester that the Forest Service is working to increase its firefighting capabilities, but said that it needs more large airtankers.

“If it becomes a much more active fire season than what we currently predict, there will be times when there is a shortage of resources and we will have to deal with that,” Tidwell told Tester.

Tester first called on the Forest Service to modernize its airtanker fleet in February, when he urged the agency to “contract a new air fleet in a way that quickly increases the Forest Service’s wildland firefighting capabilities while protecting taxpayer dollars.”

Airtankers are effective tools for fighting wildfires.  They keep wildfires small and less costly, saving the Forest Service $300 million to $450 million per year.  Tidwell today said that the Forest Service also plans to use helicopters to support firefighting efforts.

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.