USA — The House Armed Services Committee advanced an amendment sponsored by Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke that will now go to a full vote as part of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Bill.
The amendment directs the secretary of the Air Force to prepare a brief to the committee by Sept. 1 that assesses the locations of C-130 Military Airborne FireFighting Systems.
“Montana and other Western states have seen devastating wildfires rage through our lands, taking entire communities and leaving countless fatalities in their wake,” Zinke, R-Mont., said in a release. “My amendment will allow the Air Force to improve wildfire readiness and move firefighting capabilities to western military hubs, like Great Falls. In a year when wildfires are predicted to be particularly tough, this realignment of resources cannot come soon enough.”
The report should include a list of the current Air Force units, their utilization rates and “a future force determination that most efficiently uses the MAFFS units. This report shall specifically assess opportunities to expand coverage of MAFFS units the western United States.”
The MAFFS program is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Defense provides the C-130 aircraft. Eight MAFFS exist in the U.S. and are operated by four C-130 units. Those units are listed on the Forest Service website and have been the same since the MAFFS program was established in 1973, according to the Forest Service.
Those units are the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne; the 145th Airlift Wing of the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte; the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard in Port Hueneme; and the 302nd Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
The MAFFS provide surge capability and augment the commercial fleet that the Forest Service contracts for wildfire suppression and the Forest Service formally requests C-130 support from the Department of Defense.
Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said the DOD has never turned down a request, but that the military determines which planes are available to support wildfire suppression efforts.
The Forest Service has determined eight MAFFS to be the appropriate number for current operations and the foreseeable future, Jones said.
Jones said the DOD determines which military units fly MAFFS, but that the Forest Service likely participated in the decision when those units were selected in the early 1970s.
In 2009 and 2010, no C-130s were used in wildfire operations. In 2011, C-130s flew 443 sorties, 479 hours and dropped 1.2 million gallons of fire retardant. In 2012, C-130s flew 884 sorties, 848 hours and dropped 2.3 gallons of fire retardant. In 2013 those numbers were 576, 540 and 240,131. Last year, C-130s flew 88 sorties, 89 hours and dropped 250,000 gallons of fire retardant, according to Forest Service data.
Zinke, along with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., has also pushed legislation to change the way Congress funds programs to combat catastrophic wildfires and would instead treat them like other natural disasters.
The legislation would give both the Forest Service and Department of Interior more flexibility and resources to adequately combat wildfires while also protecting non-fire related programs from being raided to make up for budget shortfalls, according to Tester’s office.