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August 20, 2013

Wyden, Murkowski, Feinstein Release GAO Report on Improving Fire Aviation Program

Senators Call for Improved Information-Gathering and a Clear Strategy to Modernize Federal Fire Aviation Program

Washington, D.C. – Inadequate information about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft and poor communication between agencies and stakeholders are hampering efforts to modernize the fleet of federal firefighting aircraft, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report released today.

Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called on the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior to swiftly adopt the GAO’s recommendations, including doing more to measure the effectiveness of different types of aircraft on wildfires. They jointly requested the report last year.

“Air tankers are a critical tool that supports the efforts of our firefighters on the ground to protect homes and lives,” Wyden said. “But as fire suppression continues to consume a larger portion of the federal budget, it’s vital for policymakers and incident commanders to have solid data on the most effective use of these planes.”

“Firefighting aircrafts have helped save countless lives and homes by assisting crews on the ground in controlling and extinguishing fires,” Murkowski said. “However, the lack of communication and information shared between agencies and stakeholders has made it is virtually impossible to determine the right mix of firefighting aircraft to ensure the effectiveness of our nation's current fire aviation program. It’s imperative that we’re able to obtain accurate and up-to-date information on this crucial program to ensure its success.”

Air tankers drop water or fire retardant on and near wildfires, both to extinguish small fires and to buy time for firefighters on the ground to build fire lines. Other aircraft drop smokejumpers ahead of advancing fires, or transport personnel and equipment.  Federal agencies currently contract with private companies to operate decades-old, outdated “legacy” aircraft that make up the majority of the federal fire air fleet. The Forest Service this year finalized contracts for seven next-generation air tankers, but studies estimate more planes will be needed to meet the needs of federal firefighting agencies.

The Government Accountability Office called for federal agencies to take three steps to improve fire aviation policy:

-Collecting more information on the performance and effectiveness of firefighting aircraft. Currently, the Forest Service collects only information for large air tankers, according to the GAO report.

-Improving collaboration between agencies and stakeholders in the fire aviation community.

-Using the new information and collaboration to update the national strategies for modernizing the federal fire airplane fleet.

The full GAO report is attached below.