Late last night, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted an amendment to the Farm Bill offered by Reps. Scott Tipton (R-CO), Doug Lamborn (CO-05), Mike Coffman (CO-06) and Cory Gardner (CO-04) to allow the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to lease new air tankers, at no additional cost to taxpayers, to fight wildfires. Currently, the Forest Service is limited to leasing only decommissioned military tankers, of which there is a limited supply. As a result, since 2002, the USFS fleet has dwindled from 44 to 9 tankers, a cause for alarm given the severity and frequency of catastrophic wildfires.
The amendment was offered to H.R. 1947 – Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, known as the Farm Bill. It is expected to receive a vote on the House floor today.
Large air tankers are among the most effective tools to fight wildfires, and the USFS relies on them to initially attack fires. Current contracts allow USFS to procure five year service level agreements from any available operating commercial tankers but do not allow USFS to directly access new air tankers with greater firefighting ability. This amendment would provide the USFS with the ability to lease new aircraft, thus providing the USFS with cost-effective and reliable aerial firefighting capability for years to come.
“Air tankers are critical for combatting the devastating wildfires that have ravaged Colorado and Western States over the past decade. This amendment will provide the Forest Service with needed flexibility to upgrade its fleet and have access to the tools necessary to suppress wildfires and limit destruction,” Tipton said. “In addition to this, we must continue to work to address the conditions in our forests that lead to these fires. Taking proactive measures to mitigate hazardous fuels and restore our forests to a healthy state would significantly reduce the occurrence and severity of wildfire, prevent future loss of life and property, as well as protect the fragile ecology of our forests and water supplies from irreversible damage.”
“The unprecedented destruction of the Black Forest Fire makes it abundantly clear our Forest Service needs greater firefighting capabilities. We can’t rely on the old model of leasing retired military aircraft to fight these deadly fires,” said Lamborn. “The Forest Service should have the ability to lease new aircraft. We know that when lives and property are threatened every minute counts. Delays can be deadly.”
“The residents of Colorado and the West know that we need as many tools as possible to protect against emergency level forest conditions. For this reason, I am happy to support Rep. Tipton’s amendment to provide the USFS with additional flexibility in their efforts to fight wildfires,” Coffman said. Additionally, I will continue to help our western communities by fighting for new active forest management policies that can proactively mitigate the risk of wildfires.”
“In Colorado, we have seen how effectively air tankers can fight wildfires, and that is why we need the most up to date fleets,” Gardner said. “I am proud to support this amendment, which will give the Forrest Service access to new aircraft so we can fight fires from the ground and the sky.”
Last year Colorado experienced two record breaking fires, and already this year the Black Forest Fire has killed two people and destroyed more homes than any other in Colorado history. In 2012, Coloradowildfires destroyed nearly 650 structures, killed six Coloradans, burned more than 384,000 acres of land, and caused over $538 million in property losses. With dry conditions, poor forest health, and fires burning throughout the state, this year is shaping up to be equally devastating.
The cost of proactive healthy forest management is far less than the cost of wildfire suppression and cleaning up the aftermath. According to the Forest Service, the agency spent $296 million on hazardous fuels treatment nationwide in FY2012 while spending $1.77 billion on wildfire suppression during the same time. Tipton has introduced legislation, of which Lamborn, Coffman and Gardner are co-sponsors, to streamline hazardous fuels reduction projects and make up-front investments in forest health and prevention. More information on that legislation is available here.