Excess Air Force planes eyed for firefighting duty

Sen. Mark Udall pressing Defense Department to transfer unneeded cargo planes to U.S. Forest Service as soon as possible

A  C-27J in flight. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.
A C-27J in flight. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — U.S. Forest Service efforts to modernize its firefighting air tanker fleet aren’t moving fast enough for Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado democrat who has been pushing for more wildfire resources on all fronts.

This week, Udall pressed the U.S. Defense Department to quickly transfer excess military aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service. In a bipartisan letter, spearheaded with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Udall said the Pentagon isn’t using its authority to transfer its excess aircraft at no cost to taxpayers.

According to the letter, the Forest Service was unable to meet about half of the requests for firefighting air support in 2012. The Air Force is nearing completion of a divestiture plan for the C-27J Spartan aircraft, and Udall wants to see at least some of those planes put to work fighting fires. Read the letter here.

The planes have been deployed in Afghanistan in airlift operations. By transporting cargo and passengers, the deployment helped take some of the pressure off the military’s helicopter fleet.

The U.S. Air Force decided last year that it would cut the plan from its inventory after determining that C-130s can do the same job for less money.

The Forest Service has been eying the planes as useful for multiple wildland-fire missions including smokejumper and cargo delivery, fire crew transport, and aerial application of fire retardant.

Under the defense spending measure authored by Udall, the Forest Service has the first right of refusal on up to seven of the twenty-one C-27J aircraft deemed excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.

Transferring the planes to the U.S. Coast Guard would be inconsistent with the the defense spending bill, according to the letter, which explains that Congress specifically relegated USCG’s priority in obtaining excess C-27J second to the Forest Service.

In a press release, Udall said the planes could help prevent smaller wildfires from exploding into megafires in some situations.

“I will keep pressing the Air Force to quickly comply with a provision I successfully included in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that provides for the transfer of excess aircraft — at no cost to the taxpayer — to the U.S. Forest Service. Whether these planes drop slurry or rapidly deliver smoke jumpers to blazes, we need these aircraft to keep Coloradans safe and our communities intact.”

Udall said these transfers are critical to updating the U.S. Forest Service’s outdated, “Korean War-era” fleet.

 

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