As fire season begins, work continues to reinstate companies with tanker contracts that were cancelled May 10

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Forest Service could have the first group of large air tankers back under contract to fight forest fires by the 4th of July, U.S. Congressman Greg Walden said today following a meeting he arranged Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C. with representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Transportation Safety Board and the Bureau of Land Management.

"We're making headway," said Walden, who chairs the Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. "The Forest Service and the FAA have given the contractors the criteria they must meet to certify that their planes are airworthy for fighting forest fires. They've hired a company that is already conducting inspections and the first ones could be completed by July 2nd. If those aircraft pass the test, the Forest Service could have a new contract in place within 24 hours."

The meeting was the third arranged by Walden and Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee since the Forest Service canceled contracts with 33 air tankers on May 10, 2004.

Currently four companies contracted by the U.S. Forest Service for air tanker operations during the wildfire season have submitted new engineering reports required for review. These companies account for 20 of the 33 grounded air tankers. Mark Rey, USDA Under Secretary for Resources and Environment, said the Forest Service was reviewing the reports and checking for compliance with the new FAA airworthiness requirements.

Decisions on Aero Union's submittal, one of the contracted companies that first submitted the required paperwork, are expected to be made by the first week in July, with other decisions to follow by mid-July. Once a favorable decision is made, the paperwork to reinstate those approved aircraft can be ready within 24 hours.

Other developments included a new report by the U.S. Forest Service showing that despite the loss of the air tankers, the agency's initial firefighting attack capabilities were as good or better than last year at this time. However, Under Secretary Rey noted that the large air tankers are still an important part of fighting wildfire and are less expensive to deploy.

Subcommittee Chairmen Walden and Mica plan to hold another meeting in mid-July in order to continue oversight of the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture as the scheduled reviews proceed and air tankers are returned to service.

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