Washington, D.C. – Last night the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which includes language by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) transferring 22 military aircraft to the Forest Service for battling major wildfires.
“This is a real step forward in replenishing the Forest Service’s dwindling air tanker fleet, which is critically important to fighting wildfires,” said Senator McCain. “This year’s wildfire season burned millions of acres across the West and brought tragedy to Arizona with the loss of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in the Yarnell Hill Fire. Wildfire suppression aircraft are vital to protecting human life and property. Congress must do more to restore the Forest Service air tanker fleet, but this transfer will boost their ability to fight wildfires.”
“I am pleased the amendment I cosponsored with Senator McCain to transfer seven HC-130 H planes from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service was included in the defense authorization bill that passed the Senate last night,” said Senator Feinstein. “These seven plans combined can carry over 21,000 gallons of water or fire retardant to help combat dangerous forest fires. Given California’s worsening risk of forest fires – as evidenced by the ongoing Pfeiffer Fire near Big Sur – this transfer is a critical step to help address our ability to defend forests and communities from the threat of wildfires.”
Every year, millions of acres are destroyed by wildfires across the western United States. While aircraft are vital to the Forest Service’s ability to fight wildfires, the aviation fleet owned by the Forest Service has become seriously degraded. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in August warns that the number of Forest Service large air tankers (LATs) has dropped from 44 aircraft in 2003 to just 8 aircraft in 2013.
Under the Defense bill passed last night, seven surplus HC-130H Hercules aircraft will be sent to the Forest Service as LATs and fifteen C-23B Sherpa aircraft will serve as smokejumper and cargo transports. The transfer of the HC-130H aircraft nearly doubles the number of LATs operated by the Forest Service today.
The tanker capacity of the HC-130H is 3,000-4,000 gallons per aircraft and each aircraft will be structurally reinforced by the U.S. Air Force to extend their operational lifetime to about 10 years, according to the Forest Service. In 2012, Senator McCain authored a similar provision in the Defense Authorization bill calling for the transfer seven C-27J Spartan aircraft to the Forest Service as medium-sized 1,500-gallon air tankers. The language in this year’s Defense bill swaps out these C-27J for the larger HC-130H after the U.S. Coast Guard offered the Forest Service those aircraft in exchange for the C-27Js.