Tester on air tanker decision: ‘Better options were on the table’

Senator criticizes Forest Service, warns agency is unprepared for fire season

(U.S. SENATE) – With fire season heating up, Senator Jon Tester today told the head of the Forest Service that his agency left “better options on the table” when it recently contracted for seven next-generation fire-fighting air tankers.

Last year’s fire season set records in Montana and across the American West. In response, the Forest Service is adding additional planes to its fleet, but many of the tankers will not be available to fight fires until late July at the earliest.

Tester said the delay could put Montana communities at risk and that he is frustrated by how the Forest Service made its decision, which he said will not get the “best bang for the buck.”

“I’ve seen what’s happened in Montana’s forests, and I can’t figure out why the award was made how it was,” Tester told Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “We haven’t gotten an answer when these planes are going to be up in the air. My problem is there are better options on the table to be taken up by the Forest Service and you didn’t do it.”

Tidwell told Tester that almost none of the air tankers will be ready for early summer wildfires because most contractors chosen by the Forest Service need more time before their planes are ready for testing. Tester responded by questioning whether the agency properly considered how soon the planes would be ready for action when making its decision.

Fire season traditionally starts August 1, but numerous wildfires have already burned hundreds of square miles in Montana this year. The 2012 wildfire season was the third-worst fire season in United States history, with more than one million acres burning in Montana.

Tester recently pushed to provide the Forest Service with more resources to fight wildfires and has a long record of working to modernize the agency’s air tanker fleet.

Air tankers are effective tools for fighting wildfires. Aerial attack at the onset of a fire can keep wildfires small and less costly, saving the Forest Service $300 million to $450 million per year.

Tester questioned Tidwell today at a Senate Appropriations hearing on the Forest Service’s budget proposal.