US Forest Servic Chief Testifies Before Senate Committee Re: Wildfire Preparedness

14 June 2011

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USA — The following information was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this morning, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell gave details on his agencys wildfire response capabilities.

Wildfire season is upon us, as is evident by the massive fire activity in Arizona and New Mexico. I traveled there this past weekend and met with many of our firefighters who are working tirelessly to contain those fires. We are fully committed to that effort and are also prepared for the entire 2011 wildland fire season, said Tidwell. We are staffed and ready to provide appropriate, risk informed, and effective fire management and will continue our commitment to aggressive initial attack of wildfires with full attention to firefighter and public safety.

A veteran wildland firefighter, Tidwell told the committee that continued federal engagement, coordination and collaboration with state, tribal and local fire agencies is central to the collective success of wildfire suppression work nationwide.

That effort, Tidwell said, is part of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy with its three components: restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes, creating fire-adapted communities, and wildfire response.

In preparing for the 2011 fire season, the Federal Government worked along with the tribes and the states to ensure we had adequate firefighting resources prepared and positioned, Tidwell said.

Nationally, wildland firefighting agencies continue to employ a mix of fixed and rotor wing aircraft. The number of these aircraft may fluctuate depending on contractual and other agreements but key components of the Forest Service 2011 aviation resources include:

Up to 19 contracted large air tankers (comprising 90 percent of all large air tankers)

77 percent of the federal wildland fire response helicopters, including:

26 Type-1 heavy helicopters

41 Type -2 medium helicopters on national contracts

52 Type-3 light helicopters on local or regional contracts

15 leased aerial supervision fixed-wing aircraft

Up to 12 smokejumper aircraft

Two heat detecting infrared aircraft

Two single engine air tanker aircraft

300 call-when-needed helicopters

The Forest Service also coordinates closely with the Department of Defense in maintaining eight Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems that can be deployed by Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130 aircraft.

Fire managers will assign local, regional, and federal firefighting personnel and equipment based on anticipated fire starts, actual fire occurrence, fire spread, and severity. Prioritization ensures firefighting forces are positioned where they are needed most. Fire resources such as personnel, equipment, aircraft, vehicles, and supplies are dispatched and tracked through an integrated national system developed by the Forest Service, he said.

The Forest Service has also implemented a Risk Management program that focuses on improving wildfire decisions. This program enhances the skill of decision makers by allowing managers to evaluate risk and benefit relative to the overall objective of any given wildfire and by reducing the level of uncertainty when determining how to respond to a fire.

Tidwell testified that more than 16,000 firefighters are available through the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. The levels of highly-trained firefighting crews, smokejumpers, and incident management teams available for geographical or national incidents, are comparable to those available in 2010.

While the total number of individual fires across the country to date is less than the ten-year average, nearly three times more acres have burned than the ten-year average for this time of year. Still, Tidwell told the committee, the amount of suppression funding for this fiscal year is similar to the amount appropriated for the last fiscal year and that the agency has funding from prior years to allow it to respond to a worse-than-average fire season. The Forest Service also uses its authority to provide State Fire Assistance funds to support state fire management capacity.

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nations forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world.

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