The Forest Service faces the denial of the $2.5 billion needed to replace aging airtankers -- as well as other resources needed for aerial firefighting -- unless it makes a better case for that cash, according to a new report by the Agriculture Department's inspector general.
Over the next decade, the service plans to modernize its aerial firefighting arsenal, particularly its airtanker fleet, whose planes are 50 years old on average. In 2002, the agency had 44 airtankers, but lost more than half when they were grounded two years later due to safety concerns. The service estimates that by 2012, the remaining 19 airtankers will be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy.
Unlike its other aircraft, which can be leased, the service likely will have to purchase airtankers, since there are few manufacturers willing to rent them at a reasonable price. A USDA inspector general audit found that the Forest Service does need the aircraft but has done little to convince the White House Office of Management and Budget or Congress.
"If Forest Service does not make a convincing case, Congress and OMB may not give funding support for replacing aging aircraft, which may weaken future firefighting effectiveness and firefighter safety," the report says.
The audit also found that the Forest Service has not effectively collected fees from other organizations that use its planes, despite an established program to help pay for repairing and replacing the agency's fleet.
"Forest Service did not update its fees as the years passed to reflect escalating costs," the report says. "By the time Forest Service realized its error in 1997, it decided not to adjust the fees ... because this would have been cost-prohibitive."
The agency in 2008 suspended the fund, which holds $8 million, and now relies on yearly congressional appropriations to replace aircraft. The IG recommended that the agency reinstitute the fund and establish realistic rates.
At a recent Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on wildfire preparedness, ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) likewise called on the Forest Service to provide Congress with a strategic plan for procuring and managing aircraft for combating wildfires. She said the committee report accompanying the 2005 Interior appropriations bill directed the Forest Service to provide such a report that year but that it was never submitted to Congress.
Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Jay Jensen said the agency under the new administration is currently reviewing the report and that he is "optimistic" that it could be released by end of the year. He added that getting the right mix of aviation resources will be key for the agency.
Murkowski urged him to release the report by Sept. 30 so that it can be used to help prepare next year's budget. "It seems to me 2005 was a long time ago," she said.
"We need to become better prepared to deal with this issue," Murkowski added. "It's approaching, and I think we all recognize it's going to be pretty expensive. All of the alternative fixes are costly. If we don't put time into thinking about the issue and preparing for the day that the wings literally start falling off, we will find ourselves at the mercy of the Department of Agriculture as they attempt to devise a solution. Hastily thought out emergency responses are always more costly, certainly more disruptive."
Need for new airtankers
The 2002 fire season saw two fatal crashes, when a C-130 Hercules broke apart near Yosemite National Park in California, killing three crewmembers, and when a PB4Y tanker crashed near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, killing two pilots. Problems with the planes' structure were blamed in both cases. The Forest Service and Interior Department grounded the fleet in May 2004 after reviewing National Transportation Safety Board reports that criticized the lack of oversight to ensure the tankers' airworthiness and ability to fight fires.
Aerial tankers do not put out fires, but they provide a first line of defense. Their primary function is to aid ground crews by dropping about 3,000 gallons of fire retardant to block the spread of a fire. The Forest Service leases 804 aircraft of all types and owns 27, the report said.
To demonstrate the benefits of buying the air tankers, the Forest Service should emphasize that they are cost effective, the IG report said. The rate of initial attack -- putting out fires contained early before they become larger -- has dropped since the Forest Service began losing airtankers in 2004 because of safety concerns. The 1.5 percent decrease equals about 150 more fires that escaped initial attack and cost an additional $300 million to $450 million to suppress. By comparison, new airtankers cost up to $75 million each.
The Forest Service also needs to collect current, actual aviation firefighting data instead of relying, as it has been doing, on information more than a decade old and produced by computer models, the report said. The agency also should develop a project team to oversee acquisition that is capable of setting time frames for planning and procurement, selecting aircraft, and assessing whether they meet performance measures, the report said.
The Forest Service generally agreed with the IG's findings and recommendations. But the agency said it would establish a project team only after Congress approves the budget request for aircraft, while the IG said it should be established immediately.
Click here to read the IG report.