Wyden Urges Action from Congress to Modernize Forest Service Fleet

Senator Wyden spoke on the Senate floor following his introduction of legislation which addresses an urgent threat to the national forests—the lack of resources to fight serious wildfires that to date have burned more than 830,000 acres.  With an aging air tanker fleet, the Forest Service already has a limited capacity to fight wildland fires, and now with two additional planes out of commission, the Service is further inhibited as they head into fire season.  Wyden's bill would permit the Service to issue Federal contracts for at least 7 large aircraft for emergency wildfire suppression operations. 


Remarks as prepared:

Mr. President, yesterday I joined with Senator Bingaman to introduce legislation to address an urgent threat to the national forests – the lack of resources to fight serious wildfires that are at this very moment burning on more than 300,000 acres. To date, already this year, more than 830,000 acres have burned.

I am alarmed that at the same time that the fires are getting bigger, the Forest Service’s air tanker fleet to fight these fires has gotten smaller. In 2006, the Forest Service had 44 large air tankers under contract in their fleet. Last week, entering another fire season, they had just 11 large air tankers under contract and ten of those averaged 50 years of age. Now, after the very tragic events of this past weekend – in which one of those air tankers crashed and its courageous pilots were killed, and in which another had a failure of its landing gear and sustained serious damage – the Forest Service is down to nine large air tankers under contract. This is a very serious problem, and a solution is long overdue. But Congress now has an opportunity to expedite the beginning of the solution. The Forest Service is finally ready to begin awarding contracts for the next generation of air tankers, consistent with their large air tanker modernization strategy.

On May 25, as is required by law, under 41 U.S.C. 3903(d), the Forest Service gave Congress a 30-day notification of its intent to award four multi-year contracts, which contain cancellation ceilings in excess of $10 million that require Congressional notification. Those four contracts will simply begin to fill the Federal Government’s need for large air tankers to fight wildfires – something which is woefully overdue. Now the 30-day waiting period is simply delaying urgently needed action . Without Congressional action, those contracts won’t be awarded until June 25. However, with hundreds of thousands of acres burning and a severely depleted capacity for sending air tankers to battle those fires, I see nothing that can be served by Congress simply sitting on its hands and waiting for those 30 days to expire. The Forest Service requested that Congress waive the requirement to wait the full 30 days to award these important contracts. The sooner the Forest Service can award these contracts, the sooner the companies that receive the awards can begin to prepare to deliver those next generation air tankers and get them out fighting fires.

I need to be clear, I do not know the details of the contracts and have no idea which of the companies that submitted bids will be the successful recipients. But I do know that the Forest Service has complied with its obligation to notify Congress. Congress has been notified with the required information and nothing further can be gained by simply letting time pass. I urge my colleagues to see the real seriousness of the fire situation facing the nation and approve this critical legislation.

At this very moment there are 11 uncontained large fires nationally, 152 new fires reported in just the last 24 hours and dire predictions about hot and dry conditions combining with strong winds, looming thunderstorms and arid lands across large parts of the landscape. These factors all contribute to a dangerous fire situation on the ground, and yet the Forest Service now has only nine air tankers to assist the hardworking fire crews on the ground. Eight of those tankers are getting to the point where they belong in museums rather than in the sky. While the Forest Service can, and should, use all possible assets – such as helicopters and innovative options like 20,000 gallon Very Large Air Tankers – and the agency will additionally likely need to call in the National Guard, the large air tankers remain a critically important tool for fire suppression. In fact, the fire fighting agencies mobilized air tankers 153% above the 10-year average in 2011. Yet these planes needed to assist on-the-ground firefighters have dwindled to the dire shortage now before us. Unfortunately this lack of resources is coming at a time when the nation’s forests are very vulnerable to fire – with an early season that is already producing record breaking fires. Fire seasons are only getting longer and more severe with more and more mega-fires. From 2000 to 2008, at least 10 states had fires of record-breaking size. The Forest Service itself indicated in its air tanker mobilization strategy that the agency will need up to 28 of these air tankers in order to adequately battle fire threats. Today I am again asking my colleagues to recognize the seriousness of this threat and let the agency proceed in awarding the new contracts as soon as possible. The legislation I am offering would enable the Agency to do just that and begin to tackle this serious problem.

Finally, I want to express my thanks to all the hard working and brave firefighters, pilots, companies and agency personnel that are tirelessly battling these fires, and I express my deepest condolences to the families, colleagues and friends of the deceased pilots. I hope that by advancing this legislation Congress will send them the message that relief is on its way.

M. President, I ask unanimous consent that my comments be printed in the Congressional Record, and I yield the floor.