Bennet Calls for Modernization of Forest Service Air Tankers to Help Fight Wildfires

November 9, 2012

Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is calling for the modernization of the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) large air tanker fleet to help fight wildfires. The request comes after a summer of devastating wildfires in Colorado and after several new wildfires broke out in the past month.

“After a wildfire season that has wreaked havoc in Colorado, it is clear that we need adequate resources in order to fight these fires and prevent extensive damage to our forests and surrounding communities in our state and across the country,” Bennet said. “With the average Forest Service aircraft more than 50 years old, I am committed to modernizing our aerial firefighting capacity and working with my Senate colleagues to pursue every avenue available, including possible legislation, to ensure that the necessary resources are available to fight future wildfires.”

Bennet, the chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, wrote a letter to Senators Jack Reed and Lisa Murkowski. Reed and Murkowski serve as chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Forest Service’s appropriations.

In the letter, Bennet wrote, “The wildfires that raged for much of this past summer are a powerful reminder that the Forest Service’s current available airborne assets are largely inadequate to meet our expected firefighting needs over the coming years. The recent wildfires could have been even more destructive if the USFS had not requested activation of 100% of the Department of Defense’s fire fighting air tankers, and solicited additional international support from Canada. Simply put, the Secretary of Agriculture needs flexibility and options to renew a viable and effective fleet to protect the nation.”

Bennet urged the committee leaders to pursue legislative solutions to help the USFS implement its Large Air Tanker Modernization Strategy. The strategy, which was released in January, supports a recapitalization of USFS’ large air tanker fleet with new, faster, and more cost-effective aerial tankers.

Earlier this year Bennet successfully helped push a bill through Congress to help the USFS more quickly acquire seven next-generation large air tankers as an initial step. Now more needs to be done to ensure that the Forest Service has the modern air tankers that experts believe it needs to combat there fires.

Bennet has helped lead efforts to leverage federal resources during and after the devastating 2012 fires throughout Colorado. Bennet and Senator Mark Udall wrote a letter to the president signed by the entire delegation to help secure a swift federal disaster declaration as the fires raged throughout the state. Bennet and Udall also wrote to the Administration to help secure SBA disaster loans for affected areas of the state, and worked closely with Colorado Springs leaders to secure a $100,000 competitive grant to help the region recover from the economic impacts of the Waldo Canyon Fire. They are also working to secure additional emergency funding for the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which provides support for rehabilitating and restoring watersheds in areas affected by wildfires and other natural disasters.

Last month, Bennet and Udall formally requested that the Forest Service study the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires, in an effort to understand the social, economic, organizational and ecological impacts of these fires and better mitigate the impact of future blazes.

Bennet, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, fought for the reauthorization of stewardship contracting in the committee’s initial draft of the 2012 Farm Bill. Stewardship contracting authority is a critical tool for the Forest Service to implement projects that restore and maintain healthy forest ecosystems, and provide business opportunities and local employment. Colorado is currently among the states with the most stewardship contracts underway, with 34 projects totaling almost 12,000 acres.

Bennet is a vocal advocate for the Farm Bill, which passed the Senate in June with bipartisan support. The bill includes vital resources to assist farmers and ranchers suffering from the drought and wildfire damage.

Full Text of the Letter:

November 2, 2012

Dear Senators Reed and Murkowski:

I write to request that the Appropriations Committee craft an FY 2013 bill that works to modernize our air tanker fleet so that we can effectively combat future wildfires. 

The 2012 summer wildfire season was one of the worst on record, and residents in my home state of Colorado all too often experienced this reality first hand. The High Park and Waldo Canyon fires were two of the most destructive wildfires in the history of the Western United States. They hold the first and second place record for the greatest home and infrastructure losses ever in Colorado, and prompted the President to declare a major disaster in the state. Even as these fires burned, at the height of the fire season this summer, Colorado officials confronted 17 additional blazes across 15 counties. Cumulatively, the fires burned over 200,000 acres of land, killed 6 Coloradans, destroyed over 650 homes, and forced nearly 50,000 evacuations. Unfortunately, this threat now persists much later into the year than it has in past years, and several new Colorado fires that began in the past several weeks have spurred further evacuations of dozens of homes across three counties.

I have worked with the rest of the delegation on several fronts to ensure that Colorado has the necessary resources to respond to and recover from these challenges. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry reauthorized important forest health measures in the Farm Bill that recently passed the Senate. I am confident the Agriculture Committee’s Forestry Subcommittee will continue to pursue vigorous oversight, as well as new policy measures, to help mitigate wildfire risk and increase resiliency across our national forests.

We still have more work to do in the future. The wildfires that raged for much of this past summer are a powerful reminder that the Forest Service’s current available airborne assets are largely inadequate to meet our expected firefighting needs over the coming years. The recent wildfires could have been even more destructive if the U.S. Forest Service had not requested activation of 100% of the Department of Defense’s fire fighting air tankers, and solicited additional international support from Canada. Multiple studies by the federal government land management agencies over the past decade have looked at this problem, and concluded that the current aerial tanker fleet is too old. The average aircraft was produced more than 50 years ago. The number of available aircraft is declining swiftly due to accidents and attrition. While 44 large aerial tankers were available as recently as 2002, fewer than 10 are flight-ready today, and the number is expected to continue to decline. Simply put, the Secretary of Agriculture needs flexibility and options to reconstitute a viable and effective fleet to protect the nation.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy, released in January 2012, recommended a “next generation” aerial tanker solution. The study supported a large air tanker fleet recapitalization with newer, faster, more cost-effective aerial tankers. Support for implementing this strategy is urgently needed, before the damage caused by future fires exposes the inadequacy of our existing fleet. As chairman and ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Forest Service, I ask for your support in this effort.

I look forward to working with you and others interested in this important issue to pass an FY 2013 Interior appropriations bill that works to implement the USFS’ modernization strategy to address this critical national need.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.  

Sincerely,

Michael F. Bennet
Chairman
Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources
Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

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