Senate hearing about wildfire management

On Tuesday the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing “to consider the wildfire management programs of the Federal land management agencies”. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior both had representatives provide testimony and answer questions from the Senators. The representatives were Kim Thorsen, the DOI’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Management (her written testimony), and Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service (his written testimony). As far as I know a transcript of the full hearing is not yet available.

A video of the hearing can be found at the Committee’s web site. The first 18 minutes shows a mostly empty room; the hearing actually begins at 18:00.

The Senators had vastly different points to make and questions to ask. Senator James Risch from Idaho bragged that he was probably the only Senator in the room that had a degree in forest management and that he had operated a Pulaski.

Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona talked about the fires currently burning in his state and that he thought the agencies should concentrate more on fire prevention, which would save money on suppression.

Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska has dogged the USFS for years about the state of the air tanker fleet and continued to do so in Tuesday’s hearing. Here is a portion of her statement/question, which begins at 26:00 in the video:

In 2003 we asked the Forest Service to tell us, what do you need to replace the heavy firefighting aircraft that were grounded in 2002? It took 10 years to develop an answer. And when it came it was with a $2 billion price tag during a time when the Congress was cutting the federal budget by 15% to 20% and it included no recommendation as to how we were going to pay for it.

Even more frustrating is that the agency seems to be fixated on one aircraft type and refuses to consider any other alternatives. Last month Chief Tidwell told me that the Forest Service would work to acquire a variety of aircraft types but his staff continues to tell people that the agency will only accept an aircraft that can carry 2,000 gallons of slurry. I just don’t understand why the Forest Service continues to tell the aircraft manufacturers and others here in Congress that whatever the aircraft it acquires it is going to need to carry 2,000 gallons of slurry.

So my message to the land management agencies is this. Develop a procurement plan to replace the aging aircraft that looks at a variety of types and sizes of aircraft. Develop a plan that has the flexibility to drop slurry, foam, gel, or water. Develop it to take advantage of the lakes and rivers that hold millions upon millions of gallons of water that could and should be dropped by water scooping aircraft. And finally do not ignore the opportunity to keep the existing fleet operational longer.

Later she asked more questions about large air tankers and about the use of Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT), the DC-10 and 747, suggesting that the USFS look at using the VLATs. Chief Tidwell said his agency would do so.

Tidwell also bragged that the USFS had used the DC-10 on the Wallow fire in Arizona. He failed to mention that it was only possible because it was borrowed from CalFire. The USFS currently has no contracts with any VLATs, and has refused to even consider exclusive use contracts for them like they have with the 19 large air tankers, offering the VLATs just call when needed contracts that would only pay if and when the aircraft were activated and used on individual fires.

Senator Murkowski also mentioned the recent article in the Washington Post titled “Firefighting planes have perhaps been on the job too long” that Wildfire Today covered on June 13.

Interestingly, Chief Tidwell reading from his pre-submitted written testimony, deviated from it by adding at the end, at 41:50 in the video:

In closing I want to touch on the issue of large air tankers. Large air tankers are an accepted part of wildland fire suppression, but our current fleet averages more than 50 years old. In the next 10 years more than half of our large air tankers will need to be replaced and we are studying the options and will be making a recommendation to you by the end of the summer.

Excerpts from the DOI about resources available in 2011:

For the 2011 fire season, available firefighting forces within the Department of the Interior – firefighters, equipment, and aircraft – are comparable to those available for the last several years.

Among its bureaus, the Department will deploy approximately 3,500 firefighters, 135 smokejumpers, 17 Type-1 crews, 750 engines more than 200 other pieces of heavy equipment (dozers, tenders, etc.) and about 1,300 support personnel (dispatchers, fire cache, etc) ; for a total of nearly 5,000 personnel. Where possible, the Department will emphasize the hiring of returning veterans to fill the ranks of its firefighting forces.

Aviation assets for FY 2011 are comparable to prior years as well, with exclusive use contracts in place for 2 water scooping aircraft, 37 helicopters, and 22 other aircraft (smokejumper, air attack, etc.).  Nearly 60 single-engine air tankers (SEATs) are expected to be available through call-when-needed contracts.

From the DOA/USFS about resources available in 2011:

For the 2011 fire season, the available firefighting forces – firefighters, equipment, and aircraft – are comparable to those available in 2010, more than 16,000 firefighters available from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior with approximately 70% coming from the Forest Service. The levels of highly-trained firefighting crews, smokejumpers, Type 1 national interagency incident management teams (the most experienced and skilled teams) available for complex fires or incidents, and Type 2 incident management teams available for geographical or national incidents, also are comparable to those available in 2010.

Key components of the Forest Service 2011 aviation resources include:

  • Up to 19 contracted large air tankers (comprising 90% of all large air tankers);
  • 77% of the federal wildland fire response helicopters, including:
    • 26 Type 1 heavy helicopters;
    • 41 Type 2 medium helicopters on national contracts; and
    • 52 Type 3 light helicopters on local or regional contracts;
  • 15 Leased Aerial Supervision fixed-wing aircraft;
  • Up to 12 Smokejumper aircraft;
  • 2 heat detecting infrared aircraft;
  • 2 single engine air tanker aircraft (SEATs); and
  • 300 call-when-needed helicopters.

More information: has an article about the congressional hearing.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

17 thoughts on “Senate hearing about wildfire management”

  1. for Filids and Emmet–No sir, I’m sorry I stepped on your toes. Brown bag lunches and FS steam tables are not what I consider “catered meals.” I do know a little about large feedings four times a day for 4000 on Constellation and 5000 for the Carl Vinson. I have also hauled three truck loads of “groceries” a day to fire camps—when the fire camps were not 200 miles from civilization.
    My definition of “catered meals” are take out meals in the white styrofoam boxes from the Hotel Gadsden—certainly not a bag lunch.

    Firefighters and engines are the best, but in my area Horseshoe Two, engines and crews get the call. Hour and a half from Sierra Vista, four or five from Flagstaff.

    So, while we are waiting for engines, crews and helos, why not put up air attack and a couple of heavies (depending on availability). May not stop a fire, but could slow it down.

    A VLAT perhaps? A VLAT lays a pretty good swathe—but we have seen the Witch Creek Fire in San Diego jump an eight lane freeway.

    I am in no way being critical of the people on the ground, but their controllers in air conditioned offices in Tucson or Alb. I’ll just push this button here on my desk, and the toilets in the campgrounds will flush and the fires will extinguish themselves.

    The FMO is in charge until to the fire reaches Incident Management Team Size.

    Maybe get an incident management team in place sooner. Horseshoe Two, fire leaves the forest and is burning in the flat. It’s all but out—stopped—then out come the drip torches, ahead of the fire, in the wind, and the expect to burn out the fuel. (Shoulder shrug) If the wind is blowing North, the fire is burning North, you set your back burn but expect it to burn South back into the fire?

    1. it is easy for us to armchair it, but I concur, air support could easil have been most land based responders. Where I work the helicopter and or air tankers are often IA dispatched at sametime as engines, well before a type 2 or 1 team are requested or any IC is on the fire. VLAT — well there are a lot of pros and cons, they do lay a wide swathe and you are so right, a freeway or even a reservoir are no barricade to a wind driven fire. They are good for PR and the politicians, but the debate also needs include the financial aspect. the FS wants these on CWN contracts, and the companies want them on a fixed contract. Expensive in a slow fire year. Budgets are tight, fires expensive, we got out of the business of being proactive because people are short sighted. I am sure decisions in all of the AZ fires will be hashed over and over, and I hope as a lesson learned and not in a witch hunt, we saw how well that worked out here in California. Politics looks for blame and it is not just that simple. Droughts, heat, winds, and poor funding over the past 2 decades have all contributed… You all stay safe and pray for knowledgeable, experienced decision makers and not the wanna be, I know best its my Forest dude.

  2. The Feds saw an opporunity to start eliminating medium and large air tankers (save money?) by using the super base report. The six bases never saw three federal air tankers stationed there. That was the down side of the concept, “we forgot the tankers”. Enough on this subject. Let’s form a committee(Black Rippon) and study it for the next twenty years.

    1. Johnny,

      You are talking in circles that nobody can follow, and your info doesn’t correspond with facts.

      What exactly is your point of concern or discussion?

  3. Re: Super Base Concept


    After re-reading your comments, I think you might be confusing the difference between large airtankers (LATs) and very large airtankers (VLATs)… and their value in the mix with medium and small (single engine) airtankers.

    Federal large airtankers in R5 were combined into 6 primary bases in the 1980’s as a result of the “Super Base” study:
    Ramona, Hemet (now San Bernardino), Fresno, Chester, Redding, and Fox.

    Additionally, 13 CDF (now CAL FIRE) medium airtanker bases were expanded or established and are still in use today.

    There ARE currently 3 identified VLAT bases that have been used in CA on fires: McClellan (Sacramento, former McClellan AFB), Victorville (former George AFB), and San Bernardino (former Norton AFB).

    The simple fact of the matter is that the feds need to modernize their airtanker program and fleet…. small.. medium.. large.. and very large… and STOP relying on 50-60+ year old technology as “state of the art”.


  4. Re: “Super Base” concept

    Portions of the “Super Base” concept were incorporated and used, while others were not for various reasons.

    It was decided (at least in CA / Region 5) to utilize a well dispersed combination of federal and state airtankers spread out at bases throughout the state.

    The concept has dwindled recently with the drastic reduction of federal airtankers in the mix… forcing the federal agencies to rely heavily on the fleet of S-2Ts operated by CAL FIRE to fill in the gaps.

    It’s really simple concept: airtankers work on IA, and the lack of federal airtankers is hampering IA success.

  5. Early 1980’s with an identified forest fuels tons per acre increasing rapidly (reduction in logging one factor) the best of the Forest Service R-5 fire control/management people were tasked with identifing those past wildfires that could have been contained during initial or extended attack using aggressive use of large fixed wing air tankers. Objective: Lower suppression cost, reduce resource destruction, eliminate air bases, combine fixed wing air tankers into six bases, three F.S./BLM tankers per base. The Super Base report was well done, had merit,achievable using existing facilities and did reflect significant suppression cost savings.
    Sent to R-5 Region where it died on the vine. Wallow Fire, all the kings (queens) horses and all queens (men) could’t have stopped this one. Hope I am politically correct on the last sentence.

  6. Thank you Ken and Mr. T. for your answers.

    In structural firefighting the initial response is considered critical.

    Would it be fair to say that the USFS initial response was poor?

    One who knows more about wildland fire than I always that the USFS will do nothing without Helocopters and catered meals.

    1. excuse me. line crews and engines are it and yest if there are some nearby helicpoters will aslo be dispatched. And why not helos? they can move faster to remote locations than an engine. Food is ordered when the IC feels they can not catch it and it will gone on past the shift. THe idea of having fire fighters going 24 hours with out food is deplorable, they are going with out much sleep, doing extremely hard work, and these bodies need fuel and water. And I would not put brown bag sandwich lunches in the same category of catered meals. For extended fires catered meals is far more efficient that bag lunches…. have you ever tried to feed 2-3,000 people 3 times a day by going to your local market, ordering up sandwiches?

    2. Your comment about helicopters and cateered meals lacks a lot of credibility if you consider the Smokejumpers who almost always eat MREs and the thousands of person-nights the USFS Hotshot crews spend in a “coyoter camp” environment during most fire seasons. But it’s easy to throw out unsubstantiated comments attributed to “someone else”.

  7. In response to AZ – The military is bound by law not to compete with private industry – meaning everyone else with a retardent plane has to be committed before they can be called up. Secondarily experience with MAFFS in the past is that they have not been terribly effective especially in heavy fuel types, so their reputation on the ground with firefighters is poor. The new MAFFS 2 is reportedly significantly better at getting more than a pink mist to the ground. But the final thing is that these, like the 747 and DC10, are not the panacea of fire suppression that many would have you believe – just another tool in the toolbox. It takes the right tool in the right place at the right time. Getting to the testimony in the article – as normal the FS lies in front of congress to make the administration look good – a problem of having political appointees head agencies. By the way this has happened for at least the last decade under both Dem and Rep administrations – so this is not meant to provoke a political party debate. Before I am accused of conspiracy theories again, Mr Tidwell follows Mr. Rey in testifying in front of congress that everything is fine in the FS fire program and they have enough money to do the job – which any firefighter in the FS ranks can tell you is a downright lie. They (FS) are banking on the emergency suppression fund to bail them out, and so we have fire “borrowing”. So it should come as no surprise that they would not want to admit that the cost of replacing the heavy tanker fleet will be enormous and they don’t have a solution. Why – see the Blue Ribbon Commission report on this. The only real solution is to design and build an aircraft that fits the mission profile, or find one that exists that comes close. Look for the latter and you will find that you can count them on one hand and all have constraints. A new aircraft – yeah right – that would be a tough sell because development cost would be in the 5-10 billion range optimistically. But spending the paltry (in comparison) FS fire budget on VLATs would break the bank before fire season even starts, besides being contrary to the right aircraft for the mission. Johny – VLATs and superbases used to reduce costs – ROFL! That made my day.

  8. The USFS claims that there is a need to replace their fifty year old air craft.

    If so, can anyone explain why the USFS is so hard lined against calling up the USAF and USMC MAFF Units (modular aerial fire fighting…)?

    Myself, I do not understand their

  9. The FS testimony at least speaks in some detail about the relationship between fire and ecosystem management, referencing the cohesive strategy. The DOI testimony is much more oriented around suppression; even the fuels program is presented as simply a support for suppression in WUI. Senator Kyl has a point.

  10. Studying the “cache” of aircraft it is obvious that little attention is devoted to strong inital attack. What ever happened to the super base concept? Why isn’t there immediate need VLAT (s)at Boise, Tucson, Medford, total of six bases. California operates two bases already. Of course you have to dispatch them(heavies&VLAT’s) in a timely manner to allow for total suppression cost reduction.

  11. What about the small business that Congress and the Pres said they were going to help? I know some small first rate private contractors that pay for and maintain their own equipment without any taxpayers money. The ONLY time they get paid is when they are working.

  12. These planes have annual maintenace to do even if they do not fly. How do they expect them to pay the bills. OOps That explains it. Go away so we can buy $100mil C130s from Mark Rey.


Comments are closed.