USA — Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Dianne Feinstein of California and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska all get it: The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have enough aircraft for the upcoming fire season. That shortage leaves their states vulnerable, and that’s why they’ve asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the situation. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, Wyden has asked repeatedly about the shortage of aircraft without either a timely or adequate response.
In February the Forest Service released plans to modernize its aging fleet of air tankers, many of which are more than 50 years old and a few of which have broken apart in midair. The agency identifies a nationwide need to contract for at least 23 air tankers, but readily admits that there are only 14 aircraft today. It’s going to be years before replacement planes are available.
These Western senators are not alone. Reps. Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Wally Herger, Devin Nunes and Tom McClintock of California have also asked the Forest Service about aircraft shortages. The congressmen inquired about a decision to cancel four contracts for the use of heavy-lift helicopters, three to be based in California and one in Oregon. The Forest Service had arranged for 34 heavy-lift helicopters to be stationed across the country, but at the last minute canceled the contracts for the helicopters to be located in Alturas, Orland and Porterville, Calif., and Oakridge, Ore.
As a result, California and Oregon helicopter firefighting support will be reduced by more than 20 percent of the recommended levels, before considering the shortage of air tankers. Each of these communities and the adjacent wildlands have a long history of catastrophic wildfires.
Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell says his decision to reduce the number of helicopters is a budget issue, but his agency is ignoring the millions of available dollars that have not been spent on new air tankers and so could be used for helicopters.
The government says in its 2009 wildfire strategic report, “The utility of helicopters for fire suppression and other wildfire missions is well documented. When water is available nearby, Type 1 helicopters (heavy-lift) can place more suppressant/retardant onto a wildfire quicker and with greater accuracy than any other type of aircraft. Type 1 helicopters are exceptionally effective in support of large fire operations, and they are more easily used at local, temporary air attack bases than LATs (large air tankers).”
The agency seems confident that additional aircraft will be available from cooperating agencies, but Cal Fire, the Forest Service’s largest cooperator, has said that “Cal Fire air tankers should not be considered as a replacement for federal aircraft on extended attack or major federal incidents in California.”
Anyone with experience fighting catastrophic wildfires appreciates having aircraft readily available to keep fires small and reduce the overall firefighting cost. The aircraft also reduce the losses to personal injury, private property, natural resources and environmental values.
So what is the solution? Utilize the available heavy-lift helicopters at the four California and Oregon locations and contract for additional helicopters during the interim until new air tankers are available. Fortunately, six Oregon companies account for more than 75 percent of the world’s heavy-lift helicopter industry: Columbia Helicopters, Croman Corp., Erickson Air-Crane, Evergreen Helicopters, Helicopter Transport Services and Swanson Group Aviation.
We cannot wait the months for the Government Accountability Office to conduct its investigation. The Obama administration needs to use common sense, spend the money Congress appropriated for aircraft and get prepared for the coming fire season.