Forest Service Chief testifies about cutback in air tankers

In 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year there are 13.

(This article first appeared at Fire Aviation)

In a hearing Tuesday morning about the Forest Service budget for FY 2019 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senators asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about the reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the agency’s plans to rely on call when needed aircraft to fill the void.

Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief Forest Service
Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service, testifies April 24, 2018.

Lisa Murkowski (AK), Chair of the committee,  mentioned the issue during her opening remarks. Senators Maria Cantwell (WA) and Cory Gardner (CO) asked questions about what could be a shortage of air tankers, with most of the discussion centering around call when needed vendors. The Senators appeared to be concerned about the higher daily and hourly costs of CWN aircraft, and referred to the 48-hour time frame for them to mobilize after notification.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

Ms. Christiansen tried two or three times to explain how activating CWN air tankers works and how the USFS makes decisions about when to bring them on board. Her descriptions were rambling as she talked about predictive services, but it was a little too ambiguous for some of the senators who asked for clarification.

Senator Gardner mentioned that this year there are 13 exclusive use large air tankers compared to 20 last year, and talked about how call when needed aircraft are more expensive than exclusive use aircraft. He said, “What is the rationale for that again?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we really look hard and do our analysis on the right balance between the exclusive use which is for an extended period of time and the call when needed. We take this very seriously and we will evaluate each year and adjust for the balance of these contracts. These next generation aircraft are more expensive than the legacy aircraft we had operated for the last two decades. So we have to be fiscally prudent and responsible in finding that right balance. We are confident that we have the aircraft we need when we need it through the combination of exclusive use, the call when needed, the military MAFFS, and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada.”

Senator Gardner continued: “Do you think you’re providing industry with enough certainty, private industry with enough certainty, to replace some of the contracts in the past that were coming out of the Forest Service in terms of the air tankers that were in use since the 2014 passage of the Defense Authorization Act?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator Gardner we are doing everything we can to be a good partner with the industry and exercise our fiscal responsibility.”

No one acknowledged the elephant in the room, the reason there are fewer air tankers. The budget that Congress approved and the President signed forced the reduction. Ms. Christiansen, a member of the administration, apparently feels that she has to be a good soldier and say, everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here: “We are confident that we have the aircraft we need”.

And the Senators don’t want to admit that they approved legislation which caused the number of EU air tankers to be cut by one-third. So they asked mild-mannered questions and didn’t follow up when the administration’s representative insisted that everything is going to be OK.

During a discussion about budget reductions on a different issue, Senator Joseph Manchin (WV) said, “Have you been able to push back on the administration, saying you can’t cut me this deep, I can’t do my job?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we have prioritized what we can do within these constraints…”

Senator Manchin: There’s a lot of us that will go out and …..”

Ms. Christiansen: “Our priority is on the National Forests, but I look forward to working with you on additional priorities.”

Meanwhile, John Hoven, the Senator from North Dakota, spent most of his allotted time presenting what was basically an infomercial about his state.

A recorded video of the hearing will be available at the committee’s website.

Vicki Christiansen selected interim Forest Service Chief

She replaces Tony Tooke who suddenly resigned March 7.

Above: Vicki Christiansen testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee August 3, 2017.

(Originally published at 10:25 a.m. MST March 9, 2018)

Amid reports of widespread sexual harassment and misconduct within the Forest Service, and especially among firefighters, a woman will now lead the agency. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has selected Victoria (Vicki) Christiansen to be the interim Chief of the Forest Service. She replaces Tony Tooke who suddenly resigned March 7 after allegations of sexual misconduct were aired on the PBS program NewsHour.

Below is an excerpt from a message Mr. Perdue sent to employees Thursday afternoon:

With seven years at the Forest Service and 30 with the states of Arizona and Washington, Vicki knows what is needed to restore our forests and put them back to work for the taxpayers. As a former wildland firefighter and fire manager, she knows first-hand that failure to properly maintain forests leads to longer and more severe fire seasons. And as a former State Forester, she knows the benefits of Good Neighbor Authority and how best to partner with our state and local colleagues. Vicki’s professional experience will complement these efforts and help us achieve those objectives.

As we promote and maintain healthy, productive forests and preserve our natural resources, we will work to ensure a place where people can work with respect and dignity.

Ms. Christiansen has experience in wildland fire suppression. After obtaining a degree in forestry at the University of Washington in 1983 she accrued firefighting experience with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. There is one report that she was qualified to use fireline explosives. Thirteen years after graduating she was the Washington State Forester. Between 2006 and 2012 she served in five different positions with the Washington DNR, Arizona Division of Forestry, and the U.S. Forest Service. Her last job before becoming interim USFS Chief was Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry with the USFS.

In a Senate committee hearing August 3, 2017 Ms. Christiansen talked about budget issues and logging. She was also asked about water scooping air tankers by Senator Maria Cantwell. Here is the official transcript at 52:50, which was compiled from uncorrected Closed Captioning.

MISS CHRISTIANSEN, WHAT DO YOU MAKE ABOUT THE WATER USING THE SCOOPING TECHNOLOGY? WHY ARE WE CONCLUDING THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA?

>> THANK YOU, SENATOR CANTWELL. WATER SCOOPERS ARE CERTAINLY A TOOL IN OUR AVIATION STRATEGY. WE HAVE NOT CONCLUDED THEY ARE INEFFECTIVE. BUT AS YOU KNOW, IN OUR PROPOSED FY18 BUDGET WE HAD TO MAKE SOME CRITICAL CHOICES. TO BE STEWARDS OF THE TAXPAYER DOLLARS. TO THAT MAKING, WE ARE NOT PLANNING TO HOLD AN EXCLUSIVE USE CONTRACT BUT CAN ACCESS THESE THROUGH CALL [WHEN] NEEDED MECHANISMS. WE HAVE TWO UNDER EXCLUSIVE USE CONTRACT.

Victoria Christiansen
Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management Shawna Legarza (on the right) briefs Sonny Perdue and Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Steve Daines (R-MT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) at the Forest Service for a 2017 fire briefing, in the USDA Forest Service Headquarters, Yates Building Fire Desk, on Sept. 26, 2017. Victoria Christiansen is on Ms. Legarza’s right. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

We first wrote about Ms. Christiansen May 14, 2009:

Victoria Christiansen
A screenshot from a Wildfire Today article published May 14, 2009.

Personnel changes in the USFS Washington Office

James Hubbard, the Deputy Chief, State and Private Forestry, sent out a memo on May 21 that listed quite a few personnel changes in the U.S. Forest Service’s Washington Office (WO):

I am pleased to announce a series of changes which will enhance the Fire and Aviation Management (FAM) program in the Agency.  These changes involve enhancing the focus of the Agency in our quest to become skilled risk managers in wildland fire, and filling critical vacancies in the FAM staff.

Marc Rounsaville, Deputy Director for Operations, will move to the Deputy Chief’s office as the Wildland Fire Management Specialist and provide additional capacity in our risk management journey.  Marc’s work in our “continuous improvement in decision making” quest will continue.  He will work closely with Associate Deputy Chief John Phipps.

Vicki Christiansen, State Forester for Arizona (and former Washington State Forester), will be joining the Forest Service in the Washington Office as the Deputy Director with oversight responsibilities for National Fire Plan, Partnerships, Fuels, Policy, and Budget.  Vicki’s energy, wisdom, experience, and insight will provide a significant boost to the Agency.

Patti Hirami, Regional Fire Director, R-9 [USFS Eastern Region], will be returning to the WO as the Staff Assistant to the Director.  Patti’s ability to coalesce thinking, her energy and internal relationships will bring significant experience to the FAM staff.

Finally, Rich Kvale, FAM Assistant Director for Planning, Policy, and Budget will replace Marc Rounsaville as the Deputy Director for Operations.

Wildfire news, May 14, 2009

Firefighter sentenced for starting six fires

A volunteer firefighter from Parma, Idaho was sentenced on Wednesday to six years in prison for starting six fires that burned 1,200 acres of public and private land in southwest Idaho in 2007. The judge also ordered the firefighter, Clyde Homes Jr., 23, to serve three years of supervised release and pay $155,000 restitution for the fire suppression costs and property damage.

Testimony from investigators revealed that Holmes reported two of the fires shortly after starting them. Prosecutors also used physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, and cell phone records to link him to the fires.

New State Forester in Arizona

Photo credit, Victoria Christiansen

Victoria Christiansen recently resigned her position as the Washington State Forester to accept the same position in Arizona, replacing Kirk Rowdabaugh.

She has quite a bit of wildfire experience, beginning her career with the state of Washington as a firefighter, eventually working her way up to the position of State Forester.

More information is HERE in an article that includes some of her fire stories.