Mark Udall, who has fought to secure additional federal air tankers and fire-fighting resources, pressed the U.S. Defense Department in a letter to quickly transfer excess military aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to bolster its fire-fighting fleet. The bipartisan letter, spearheaded with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), raises concerns that the Pentagon is not using provisions Udall championed in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act to transfer its excess aircraft at no cost to taxpayers.
"Wildfires threaten thousands of Coloradans' homes and lives every year, and their aftermath can decimate drinking water supplies and deter tourists for years to come. We need to utilize every tool possible to fight small blazes and keep them from becoming mega-fires," Udall said. "I will keep pressing the Air Force to quickly comply with a provision I successfully included in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that provides for the transfer of excess aircraft -- at no cost to the taxpayer -- to the U.S. Forest Service. Whether these planes drop slurry or rapidly deliver smoke jumpers to blazes, we need these aircraft to keep Coloradans safe and our communities intact."
This letter follows Udall's efforts earlier this year to press Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley to do everything in his agency's power to transfer excess C-27J and C-130 aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. Udall said these transfers are critical to updating the U.S. Forest Service's outdated, "Korean War-era" fleet.
"We are deeply concerned that the Forest Service's wildfire air tanker fleet is stretched alarmingly thin and urgently needs to be recapitalized. According to press reports, there were about 914 requests to deploy air tankers at various wildfires in 2012 but about half of those requests were denied as 'unable to fill' because of fierce competition for a shortage of air assets," Udall and his colleagues wrote in the letter. "To help address this shortfall, the Forest Service has proposed acquiring the C-27J as a 21st century platform capable of multiple wildland-fire missions including smokejumper and cargo delivery, fire crew transport, and aerial application of fire retardant."
Udall has been a leading voice for ensuring that Colorado and the West have adequate resources to prepare for the threat of wildfire, including fighting to ensure the U.S. Forest Service was able to cut through red tape and secure seven next-generation air tankers.
Udall also led the effort to pass a bipartisan amendment to the U.S. Senate's 2014 budget to allocate $100 million more for wildland firefighting and he successfully secured federal funds to repair drinking-water supplies damaged by 2012's Waldo Canyon and High Park fires.
The letter is available in PDF format below:
To read the letter scroll below:
The Honorable Charles Hagel
Secretary of Defense
U.S. Department of Defense
1300 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1300
Dear Secretary Hagel:
As you near the completion of a divestiture plan for the C-27J Spartan aircraft, we want to draw your attention to Section 1091 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, P.L. 112-239 (NDAA), which governs the transfer of excess military aircraft deemed useful by the U.S. Forest Service for suppressing wildfires.
We are deeply concerned that the Forest Service's wildfire air tanker fleet is stretched alarmingly thin and urgently needs to be recapitalized. According to press reports, there were about 914 requests to deploy air tankers at various wildfires in 2012 but about half of those requests were denied as "unable to fill" because of fierce competition for a shortage of air assets. To help address this shortfall, the Forest Service has proposed acquiring the C-27J as a 21st century platform capable of multiple wildland-fire missions including smokejumper and cargo delivery, fire crew transport, and aerial application of fire retardant.
Section 1091 of the NDAA 2013 clearly gives the Forest Service the first right of refusal on up to seven of the twenty-one C-27J aircraft deemed excess to the needs of the Department of Defense (DoD). We understand and respect that U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), a division of DoD, may request up to 8 of the C-27J aircraft, which is consistent with Section 1091. However, in a memorandum to you from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), dated June 10, 2013, Secretary Janet Napolitano expressed an interest in obtaining up to 14 of the C-27J aircraft on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) under a "direct military-to-military transfer." We want to remind you that a transfer of 14 of the C-27J aircraft to USCG (which operates under the service of DHS, not the DoD (14 U.S.C. §3)) is inconsistent with the language of Section 1091. Congress specifically relegated USCG's priority in obtaining excess C-27J second to the Forest Service. This interpretation of Section 1091 is shared by experts at the Congressional Research Service, an objective legal and policy analysis branch of the Library of Congress.
We would appreciate knowing what steps you are taking to prepare the C-27J for transfer and request to be immediately notified when a plan is near implementation. We would also appreciate a reply explaining your interpretation of Section 1091 in light of the request by Secretary Napolitano.