U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) called Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today to demand that the U.S. Forest Service activate all Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) units to fight western wildfires. The USFS falls under the Department of Agriculture. Vilsack has not yet returned Gallegly's call.
"The enemy is not the fire. It's the Forest Service. For a week, the Forest Service has refused to justify why it has not pressed all available MAFFS units into service while incident commanders have been asking for more air support," Gallegly said. "The Air Force Academy is now in danger of burning down and Department of Defense officials want those planes, which are flown by DOD personnel, in the air to protect the academy. But the Forest Service refuses to take the steps necessary to protect life and property.
"Secretary Vilsack must order the Forest Service to activate all available MAFFS immediately. It is extremely negligent not to have every tool available on the front lines fighting these fires."
MAFFS are portable tanks carried in the back of C-130s that are used to drop retardant on fires. There are eight second-generation MAFFS units ready for service and one in reserve, and eight first-generation unused MAFFS units that could be pressed into service. C-130 crews from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve have been trained to use the MAFFS. On Monday, the USFS finally pressed four of the 17 available MAFFS units into service.
Gallegly spearheaded the drive in Congress through legislation and appropriations to replace the first-generation MAFFS with the newer model and to replace the aging C-130s with state-of-the-art C-130Js. Two of the second-generation MAFFS units are stationed at Channel Islands Air National Guard in Point Mugu. The others are stationed in Colorado, Wyoming and North Carolina. By law, the MAFFS, which are owned by the Forest Service, cannot be used until all available U.S. commercial aircraft have been pressed into service. That criteria was met long ago.
On Monday, USFS activated four MAFFS after saying repeatedly it had enough air power to fight the fires in Colorado and elsewhere while the state's most destructive fire in history, the High Park Fire, consumed 83,205 acres, destroyed 248 homes and killed a 62-year-old grandmother.
In 2003, the Forest Service had 44 fixed-winged commercial firefighting planes at its disposal. Some of the planes crashed during service since then and much of the fleet has been grounded. As of June 3, only eight commercial aircraft were available to fight wildfires.
On June 19, Gallegly introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Forest Service to activate unused MAFFS units to help alleviate the shortage of air tankers to fight wildfires. Currently, there are eight active second-generation MAFFs on one in reserve, and eight first-generation MAFFS in storage.
Specifically, Gallegly's bill would:
Require the Forest Service to re-activate the eight MAFFS 1 units sitting in storage around the country.
Require the Forest Service to make available the ninth MAFFS II system that is sitting at Channel Islands, ready for use.
Prohibit the Forest Service from acquiring air tankers from a foreign government unless the chief of the Forest Service certifies to Congress that MAFFS units are being fully utilized or are not sufficient to address current wildfires.
Require the Forest Service to report to Congress within 30 days of enactment on how they intend to make the ninth MAFFS II unit available along with a timeline for making the MAFFS I units available.
In 2011, more than 74,000 wildfires burned more than 8.7 million acres in the United States. During the past 10 years, an average of 83,894 wildfires have burned an average of 7.4 million acres annually.