USA – WASHINGTON – (Update: Adding Tuesday hearing) – Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Tuesday pressed Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen to ensure enough air tankers are available to fight fires in another significant fire year facing western communities.
At a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Wyden highlighted ongoing concerns he heard from Oregonians last week at town halls and other public meetings about how the agency will protect communities from wildfires using air tankers. Wyden got the assurance from Christiansen that there would be enough air tankers to fight fires this year.
“It looks like we’re going to have some real challenges in Oregon this summer,” Wyden said. “In my state, as was the case in many places, we felt we didn’t have enough tankers last summer. Lives are on the line, lives that sometimes can be affected by hours, not even days.”
Wyden specifically asked Christiansen about the agency’s “surge capacity,” which allows the Forest Service to deploy additional air tankers from the Department of Defense and other partners at a moment’s notice when communities are in immediate danger due to nearby wildfires. Christiansen laid out the agency’s policy of prioritizing air tankers for areas in more danger.
Wyden also asked Christiansen in a letter yesterday to explain the agency’s contracting changes for the use of air tankers during wildfires and to detail what safeguards exist to ensure a quick and effective response to those blazes.
In April, Wyden asked Christiansen for a plan this month for how the agency will restart fire prevention projects using Wyden’s and Sen. Mike Crapo’s Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which Congress passed into law earlier this year.
“The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act will help shift the emphasis properly back to prevention, liberating millions of dollars annually for that essential purpose,” Wyden said. “As Oregonians know all too well, you can’t eliminate fires, but our legislation – coupled with smart use of air tankers – can combine to lessen wildfires’ catastrophic effects on our state.”
Wyden’s letter to Christiansen came after the Forest Service announced contracting changes to its use of air tankers and the concerns Wyden has heard about that change from Oregonians at his town halls and meetings across the state.
“The Forest Service has taken great steps to address emergency preparedness when it comes to fighting wildfires, including development of the Predictive Services program, which helps to anticipate major fires and determine the best allocation of resources.” Wyden wrote.
“With changes in your approach to air tanker contracting, what steps are you taking to ensure the agency is adequately prepared to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires once they strike?”
The letter comes after an unusually dry and warm May in the Northwest.