As Fire Season Ignites, Cantwell Demands Best Tools For Wildland Firefighters

Cantwell: Wildland firefighters need access to drones and other new technologies to fight longer and more intense fire seasons

Washington, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called on the head of the U.S. Forest Service and a top official from the Department of the Interior to increase the use of wildfire fighting technology like drones and improved fire shelters. She also demanded that the agencies do more to increase the safety and effectiveness of our wildland firefighters.

Newly released forecasting by the National Interagency Fire Center shows the Pacific Northwest is likely to have a higher than normal probability for wildfires this summer. In May, Washington, Oregon, and California received less than 50 percent of their average precipitation, which will likely result in dry conditions in the mountains throughout the upcoming fire season. Nearly all of the United States experienced temperatures that were two to six degrees above average last month. Central Washington temperatures were 10 degrees above average.  Since these conditions are supposed to last through September, places like eastern Washington could experience a higher number of larger fires than in previous years, starting as soon as next month.

“I want to make sure that we are ensuring that firefighters have every tool available to them to help fight these fires. They need to be as safe as possible, and as efficient as possible,” said Cantwell during the hearing. “As we approach this fire season, making sure that those on the fire line have the best possible information is going to be critical.”

Cantwell continued to stress the importance of air tankers and water scoopers to fight wildfires across the west. Earlier this year, Cantwell questioned the Forest Service’s decision to eliminate its contracts for all of its water scoopers and change the way its air tankers are contracted ahead of the 2018 fire season.

“About the shift of contracts for the 35 percent of your air tankers and water scoopers, including Aeroflite’s in Spokane, to a “call-when-needed… I want to make sure that you have every tool available to you. Having that kind of air ability to help mitigate is so, so important to these communities…So, I hope that you’ll work with us to figure out how to make this not a transitional season here but a season where you have every tool at your disposal. That’s what people in the West want us to be doing,” said Senator Cantwell to the Acting Chief of the Forest Service about the current status of its fleet of air tankers.

Senator Cantwell also highlighted the potential benefits of using drones to gather critical wildfire fighting information and ensure firefighter safety and security. Last month, Cantwell secured a commitment from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to use drone technology this fire season, after introducing bipartisan legislation to encourage the use of this potentially life-saving technology while fighting deadly wildfires.

“I’m proud that Interior is being very aggressive about using drone tools on wildland fires, and we want to make sure that there is no barriers between Forest Service and Interior working together to implement this. This is so critical for information about fire size, starts, safety, and security of our firefighters,” said Senator Cantwell.

Just last month the Department of the Interior awarded four contracts to companies who operate drones for wildfires. One of those companies is Insitu, a Bingen, Washington-based company that uses small-unmanned aircraft (drone) systems to collect data. Firefighters will now be able to request and use these new drones, like any other asset, when fighting wildfires this summer.

Broadcast quality video of Senator Cantwell’s opening statement can be found here.

Broadcast quality video of Senator Cantwell’s questions can be found here.