12:31pm

Tue April 16, 2013
Wildfires

Sequester Forces Firefighting Cuts, Udall Questions Forest Service Chief

Amid talk of budgets and the sequester, the U.S. Forest Service Chief was questioned Tuesday about the agency’s 2014 budget on Capitol Hill.

Chief Tom Tidwell says sequestration has forced his agency to reduce funding for firefighting aircraft, eliminate 500 firefighters and up to 75 fire engines.

Colorado Democrat Mark Udall was among the questioners. He wanted to know how the agency plans to fight wildfires with reduced funding.

Tidwell says to cover the reductions, his agency will rely on costly ‘call when needed’ resources to supplement the exclusive use contracts the agency already has. “Because of sequester, it’s probably going to cost us more money when it comes to fire suppression,” Tidwell says. “But, we will respond. We will have the resources we need.”  

Exclusive use contracts mean resources are on full-time standby in case they’re needed by the Forest Service. Tidwell says call when needed contracts are "one-and-a-half to two-times" as expensive as exclusive use contracts.

Udall pressed Tidwell on the dwindling air tanker fleet which has been reduced to just nine planes over the past few decades. “Given that we’re facing another potentially severe fire season, what can you do to assure me that we’re going to have the next generation air tankers in the air during this fire season?” said Udall.

The agency is planning to award contracts for up to seven new next generation air tankers in the coming weeks, but Tidwell is confident that the Forest Service has the assets it needs right now to fight fires. “We’ll continue to rely on the MAFFS units we used so much last year…and then also bring the aircraft down from Canada and Alaska to ensure that we have the aircraft we need to be able to respond to these fires,” said Tidwell.

Udall has been urging the Forest Service to award contracts for bigger, faster air tankers; however negotiations for the next generation planes have been delayed by contract disputes.

Colorado lawmakers meanwhile are discussing a bill that would allow the state to create its own firefighting air tanker fleet. That bill passed its first test in a state House committee last week.

You can view the proposed 2014 U.S. Forest Service budget here [.pdf].