Feinstein in the News

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators Tuesday called for a government review of the nation’s depleted fleet of firefighting aircraft and the remedies needed in the face of increasingly severe fire seasons.

Retardant-dropping air tankers are seen as crucial firefighting tools in remote or mountainous areas, including Inland communities near or surrounded by the fire-prone San Bernardino National Forest. But the number of tankers available to the U.S. Forest Service nationwide has decreased from 44 in 2002 to 11 currently.

Many of the planes have been grounded because of airworthiness issues.

“Concerns have increasingly been raised that the federal agencies responsible for responding to wildland fires … do not have the appropriate number and mix of aircraft that will be needed for wildland fire suppression operations,” the group of four senators wrote in a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “An independent, third-party review is needed to help the Congress and the federal agencies to better evaluate the options for addressing these issues.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein D-Calif.; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Ron Wyden D-Ore.; and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Under questioning at a congressional hearing earlier this month, Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said the current fleet is too small and that the agency is working to acquire additional aircraft. But Feinstein and others have criticized the agency for delays in the process and a lack of details in a fleet-modernization plan issued last week.

The senators urged the GAO to look at the agency’s efforts since 2002 to identify the number and type of aircraft needed, and the methods and protocols decision-makers have used and whether they have considered all available options.

Forest Service officials have not responded to requests for comment on the letter.

While the GAO is not obligated to conduct the review, the agency generally acts on such requests following a formal review, GAO spokesman Charles Young said.