Cantwell Questions Forest Service Decision to End Contract for Fire Fighting Aircrafts

Spokane-based water-scooping aircrafts critical to combating wildfire across Western United States

Washington, D.C. – Today in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the committee’s top Democrat, questioned U.S. Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen about 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.

“The point of air tankers is to be able to catch wildfires before they can grow into expensive incidents. So, I am concerned about a policy that would leave these air tankers unable to fly when they are ordered--for up to 48 hours,” said Cantwell.

Under the new policy, the Forest Service changes its contracts from “Exclusive-Use” to a different type of contract, referred to as “Called-When-Needed.” Under the Called-When-Needed contract, an air tanker has 48 hours to respond after it is ordered, rather than the 15-minute response time under Exclusive-Use contracts.  The Forest Service’s new policy would force the air tankers and water scoopers to operate after the first 24 hours of a fire starting—when they are least effective.

“On this issue of air tankers being ready versus the 48-hour proposal, I think it might upfront look like a cheaper contract, but if they’re not ready for 48 hours--to serve us when we have an emergency, how is that actually saving us?” Cantwell continued.

The Forest Service recently canceled existing contracts for its water scoopers, based in Spokane, as well as for some of its air tankers, despite the Forest Service facing a sharp decline in the number of firefighting aircraft that will be in the Forest Service’s fleet for this year’s fire season. In 2017, the Forest Service had 20 air tankers available and will have only 13 air tankers available this year. In 2017, 371 orders for an air tanker had to go unfilled because none were available.

On March 23, 2018, citing a need to save costs, the Forest Service terminated its contract, , with Aero-flite, a Spokane-based company that was the sole provider of water scoopers to the Federal government for fighting wildfires during the fire season. The Forest Service has offered to convert Aero-flite’s Exclusive-Use Contract to a Called-When-Needed contract.  Without having the certainty that comes with an Exclusive-Use contract, Aero-flite has stated that it would likely be forced to lower its inventory of available planes.  This scenario is troubling because of the lower numbers of aircraft that will be available this fire season.

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

The broadcast quality video of Senator Cantwell’s questions can be found