Forest Service to Tester: Firefighting planes will be ready for fire season

Senator: ‘Hold their feet to the fire’

(U.S. SENATE) – With Montana’s fire season around the corner, Senator Jon Tester today pressed Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to make sure Montanans will be protected from this year’s wildfires.

Tester – a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Forest Service – questioned Tidwell as the panel works on the 2015 Forest Service budget. Tidwell assured Tester that Forest Service contractors will have seven air tankers ready to fight fires on July 1.

Tester pushed Tidwell to stay on top of the contractors after they failed to provide the promised number of planes in 2013, putting firefighters, homeowners and Montana’s forests at risk. The contractors first developed proposals for the Forest Service in 2011, but no new planes are currently ready.

“I’d hold their feet to the fire,” Tester said of the contractors. “This isn’t nuclear physics, this kind of stuff is not that complicated. Quite frankly, I think they knew exactly what they were getting into when they were awarded the contracts.”

Tester also pushed the Forest Service to make sure it is considering all possible costs when it awards air tanker contracts. He told Chief Tidwell that the agency must choose the most cost-effective, long-term options so that taxpayers get the best “bang for their buck.”

With the Forest Service managing millions of acres in Montana, Tester also took the opportunity to thank Tidwell for supporting his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and for recently proposed increases in timber cuts in Montana that would benefit the state’s lumber mills.

“Mills are partners of the Forest Service and partners of the taxpayer,” Tester said. He noted that in addition to being a critical part of the economy, the mills “do a very good job in allowing us to manage the forest in a way that will ensure forest health.”

Tester pledged to continue pressing the Forest Service as fire season approaches. Tester’s Committee provided $3 billion to the Forest Service for wildland fire management this year. Of those funds, $600 million went to backfill other Forest Service accounts that had been cut in order to provide firefighting funds last fire season.

More than 1,700 fires burned 124,202 acres across Montana last year, a down year compared to 2012’s record-setting fire season.

Video of Tester’s Appropriations subcommittee hearing is available online HERE.