With another forest fire season about to start, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is calling on the U.S. Forest Service to add more planes to its air tanker fleet and consider using other types of aircraft in fighting wildland fires.
"Despite the magnitude and destructiveness of recent forest fires, the agency most responsible for fighting them -- the Forest Service -- has allowed the air tanker fleet to atrophy," Wyden said during a visit Thursday to Butler Aircraft in Madras, Oregon, which has planes used to fight fires.
In 2006, the Forest Service had 44 large air tankers in their fleet. Today, it has just 11 under contract, many of which are old.
Wyden, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, has joined other senators in asking for a General Accounting Office review that will ensure an independent look at the Forest Service's actions to date and its plans to modernize their fleet.
Despite the Forest Service's announced plans to update the fleet, Wyden said he and other Senators continue to have concerns about whether the agency will have the appropriate number and mix of aircraft needed soon enough .
"In short, the agency needs a sense of urgency," he said. "It has known for a long time that the fleet needed to be updated, yet it has been unable to come up with anything other than a short-term strategy and recommendations for unaffordable options."
Wyden also said the Forest Service has also failed to give serious consideration to the availability of Very Large Air Tankers, including converted 747s with 20,000 gallon tanks.
All this comes at a time when the nature of forest fires is changing with longer fire seasons and more severe fires. From 2000 to 2008, at least 10 states had fires of record-breaking size.