Oregon State Forester Marvin Brown in mid-May declared an emergency due to the shortage of large air tankers and the expectation of an above-average fire season in Oregon this summer.
On May 10, the U.S. Forest Service announced it had canceled the federal contract for 33 air tankers. The emergency declaration enables the Oregon Department of Forestry to immediately begin securing its own aviation contracts for other tankers and helicopters to offset the loss of the federal tanker fleet.
The large fire-retardant planes have been a key element in the Department of Forestry's mission to protect the 16 million acres of forestland under its jurisdiction. In previous years, seven air tankers from the federal contract fleet have been available to fight wildland fires in Oregon and Washington.
"We have an agreement with the State of Alaska to have two of their contract tankers and two lead planes brought down to Oregon around Aug. 1," said Bill Lafferty, director of the department's Protection from Fire Program.
A lead plane is a smaller aircraft that guides a tanker into the drop zone, where it releases its load of fire retardant.
Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., expressed optimism June 3 that a portion of the nation's air tanker fleet may soon be returned to service.
A continuation of talks have been ongoing between the federal agencies since the decision last month to ground the air tankers over safety concerns. During the June 3 meeting, the FAA released criteria for private contractors to submit to the Forest Service that would certify the safety of the grounded air tankers. The Forest Service signaled that it could begin reviewing data submitted as early as Monday.
"Everyone involved in this process understands how critical these tankers are to the health of our forests and the safety of our rural communities," Walden said.
For many years, the Department of Forestry has used the federal tankers as an effective initial-attack tool. When a new fire is reported, a retardant plane can speed to the scene and slow the blaze's progress, buying time for ground-based firefighters to arrive.
To help offset the loss of those planes, the department is seeking to assemble an air-attack capability of four large tankers and seven water bucket-carrying helicopters.
While efforts are under way to restore at least part of the federal air tanker fleet, the Oregon Department of Forestry is moving ahead to secure certainty for the aviation assets it will need this summer.
The longstanding policy of the department is to attack fires quickly while they are small. This minimizes loss of the forest resource and reduces the number of large fires, which can cost millions of dollars to control.
"Aircraft are integral to our aggressive firefighting strategy," Lafferty said.
In April, The Legislative Emergency Board gave the department authority to implement a severity strategy, and the additional air resources fit within that plan.