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Mr. WYDEN. Mr. President, yesterday I joined with Chairman Bingaman to introduce legislation to address an urgent threat to America's national forests: the lack of resources to fight serious wildfires that at this very moment are burning on more than 300,000 acres in our country. To date--and it is certainly early in the fire season--more than 830,000 acres already have burned.
The heart of the problem is, as the fires have gotten bigger, the Forest Service airtanker fleet to fight these fires has gotten smaller. In 2006, the Forest Service had 44 large airtankers under contract in their fleet. Last week, they had just 11 large airtankers under contract, and 10 of those averaged 50 years of age.
After the very tragic events of this past weekend--in which one of those airtankers crashed and its courageous pilots were killed and another had a failure of its landing gear and sustained serious damage--the Forest Service is down to nine large airtankers. This is an extraordinarily serious problem and a solution is long overdue.
The reason I have come to the floor this afternoon is that Congress has an opportunity to expedite what could be the beginning of a solution. The Forest Service now is
ready to begin awarding contracts for the next generation of airtankers, consistent with their large airtanker 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 multiyear contracts, which contain cancellation ceilings in excess of $10 million and require congressional notification.
These four contracts would, in effect, begin to fill the Federal Government's need for large airtankers to fight wildfires. The 30-day waiting period is simply delaying urgently needed action. Without congressional action, these contracts will not be awarded until June 25. My view is, with hundreds of thousands of acres burning and a severely depleted capacity for sending airtankers to battle these fires, I see nothing that can be served by the Congress 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 deliver those next-generation airtankers and get them out fighting the fires.
I wish to be clear that I do not know the details of these contracts and have no idea as to which companies that submitted bids are going to be the successful recipients, but I do know the Forest Service has complied with its obligation to notify the Congress. Congress has been notified with the required information, and I just fail to understand how the country is going to benefit by simply letting time pass. I urge my colleagues to see how important and how serious this fire situation is and approve the critical legislation I have introduced with Chairman Bingaman.
At this very moment, there are 11 uncontained large fires nationally, 152 new fires that have been 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 much of our landscape. All these factors contribute to a dangerous fire situation on the ground. Yet, as we speak, the Forest Service now has only nine airtankers to assist those hard-working fire crews. Eight of those tankers are getting to the point where they ought to be considered museums in the sky.
While the Forest Service can and should use all possible assets--such as helicopters and innovative options such as the 20,000 gallon Very Large Airtankers--and the agency is likely to need to call in the National Guard, the large airtankers remain a critically important tool for fire suppression. In fact, the firefighting agencies mobilized airtankers 153 percent above the 10-year average in 2011. Yet these planes needed to assist on-the-ground firefighters have dwindled to the dire shortage--they have atrophied to the point I have described this afternoon.
This lack of resources is coming at a time when the Nation's forests are very vulnerable to fire. The fire season is early, but we are already seeing the production of record-breaking fires. Fire seasons are getting longer and they are more severe and we are seeing more and more of what the professional foresters called a megafire.
From 2000 to 2008, at least 10 States had fires of record-breaking size. The Forest Service indicated in its airtanker mobilization strategy that the agency will need up to 28 of these airtankers in order to adequately battle fire threats. So the Forest Service says we need 28. As of this moment, this afternoon, there are only nine.
I am asking today for the Senate to recognize the seriousness of the threat and let the Forest Service proceed in awarding these new contracts as rapidly as possible. The legislation Chairman Bingaman and I have introduced would enable the agency to do just that and begin to tackle this extraordinarily serious health problem.
In closing, I wish to express my thanks to all of America's courageous and dedicated firefighters. They put themselves in harm's way to protect our communities, and we should be grateful to them and to the pilots and companies and agency personnel who tirelessly battles these fires. I believe, on behalf of every Member of the Senate, it is appropriate to express our deepest condolences to the families and colleagues and friends of the recently deceased pilots. I hope by advancing the legislation I have described this afternoon, Congress will be sending a message to those courageous firefighters and those with whom they work that the Congress is beginning to put in place a system that would provide them real relief.
With that, I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.
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