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Zinke Criticizes Air Force for Leaving Montana & Northwestern States Unprotected Against Wildfires

April 6, 2016
Press Release

Zinke Criticizes Air Force and Guard for Leaving Montana & Northwestern States Unprotected Against Wildfires

(CONGRESS) April 6, 2016 – Today, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke criticized the Air National Guard and Air Force for the decision to move Air Guard MAFFS (Military Airborne FireFighting Systems) units to Reno, Nevada, rather than to Great Falls. In a letter to General Carlton D. Everhart II, Commander of the Air Mobility Command, Zinke cited a failure to consider the deadly 2015 fires in the Northwest as a flaw in the decision-making process. Last year, Zinke, as the only Armed Services Committee member from the Montana delegation, inserted language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring the Air Guard to study the need for additional air support in Western states in regards to fighting wildfires, and the impact of relocating the MAFFS from North Carolina to more fire-prone areas in the West.  The amendment was adopted and signed into law last December. The results of the report can be found here.

Zinke wrote: “I have long been an advocate of relocating the MAFFS units that are currently located on the east coast to the western half of the country where forest fires are rampant. In the 2015 NDAA, I passed language that required a report on the current allocations of the MAFFS units in the United States. This briefing showed a blatant capability gap in the Northwestern states. These very same states had the most devastating and deadly fire season on record in 2015.

“According to the U.S. Forest Service, one of the most important factors in fire suppression in high-density forested areas is the ability to contain the forest fire immediately before it becomes a catastrophe. If these units are placed in Reno, it will take 1.5 hours flight time for a MAFFS equipped C-130 to reach the Oregon/Washington border, and half of Washington as well as areas of Idaho and Montana will take longer than 2 hours to reach. On the contrary, if these units were placed with the 120th AW in Great Falls, MT, every state in the Western half of the contiguous United States could be reached in under two hours. The ability to reach a catastrophic forest fire quickly can not only save millions in fire suppression costs, it can save structures, and most importantly, lives."

Major General Matthew Quinn, The Adjutant General the Montana National Guard, said: "We are very disappointed in the decision by National Guard Bureau to relocate the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems from North Carolina to Nevada. The quality of our Airmen in Montana coupled with the proven mission excellence of the 120th Airlift Wing, and historical need for assets to fight the devastating forest fires we continue to see in Montana and the Northwest United States, should have mandated the relocation of these assets to Montana."

State Senator Ed Buttrey, who represents Malmstrom, said, “I am disappointed to hear of a decision to prioritize C-130 MAFF firefighting capable units in Nevada over Montana.  The northwest states (WA, ID, MT, ND, SD) do not have this capability, while Nevada can be served with MAFF units already in place in Wyoming, Colorado and California.  Additionally, Montana, the 4th largest state is 21% forested, while Nevada forests cover only 0.5% of their lands.  The National Guard, in replacing our fighters with transport aircraft made clear that they wanted this capability in Montana.  It’s unfortunate that after the expense and time to change missions, the same group will not support an upgrade of our current assets to MAFF assets which would serve to secure the Montana Air National Guard mission and better serve our citizens.” 

According to the U.S. Forest Service, 2015 was the most expensive wildfire fighting year on record totaling more than $1.7 billion, with Wildfires in northwest Montana cost more than $45.7 million. The most expensive fire in northwest Montana, was the $12.8 million Reynolds Creek Fire, which covered 4,850 acres in Glacier National Park. The State of Montana spent $11 million on firefighting, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Roughly half a million acres of land burned in Montana alone last year.