The Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service and the Department of Interior needs to expand their efforts to collect information the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need in order to modernize its fleet of firefighting aircraft, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
While government reports have long called for the Forest Service and Interior departments to collect firefighting aircraft performance data, neither agency did so until 2012, GAO says. Since 1995, the agencies have undergone nine major efforts to identify the type of aircraft they need, but have not been effective in doing so. The two agencies share a fleet of firefighting aircraft.
The number of large airtankers available for firefighting have decreased from 44 in 2002 to just 8 in 2013, due to aging aircraft and several crashes. In the short term, the Forest Service is relying on Canadian and military aircraft, and has contracted for some next-generation air tankers, such as Lockheed Martin
's C-130J Super Hercules.
"They have been hampered in terms of getting the next generation aircraft due to a series of bid protests that have delayed contract award," said Anne-Marie Fennel, director of GAO's natural resources and environment division. "In addition, most of the aircraft have not been fully tested and approved for operational use."
Fennel also said the agency faces challenges in terms of the fire retardant capacity and cost of maintaining the aircraft that it plans on obtaining from intergovernmental transfers.
In its review of agency efforts to modernize its fleet of firefighting aircraft, GAO found that the Forest Service and Interior need to expand their collaboration efforts. The office is also advising the agencies to collect information about all types of aircraft, as it has previously focused only on large airtankers.
Both the Forest Service and the Interior "generally agreed" with GAO's findings and recommendations, the report said.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is urging USDA to quickly adopt GAO's recommendations.
"This report highlights several areas where the federal government can do a better job to prepare for modern mega-fires and protect communities from the growing threat of wildfire," said Udall. "I urge the military to quickly transfer its excess aircraft so they can be used as air tankers and to carry cargo and personnel to fire sites. This cost-neutral step would boost our wildfire response and ensure we are taking fiscally responsible steps to fight fires."
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