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Zinke blasts Air Guard decision not to base wildfire fighting assets in Montana

Zinke blasts Air Guard decision not to base wildfire fighting assets in Montana
© Courtesy of Rep. Ryan Zinke.

Montana's lone representative in Congress is fighting a recent decision by the Air National Guard to move military airborne firefighting systems from North Carolina to Nevada, rather than Montana where he says they are desperately needed for wildfires. 

“I look at the decision to move the firefighting systems to a state that ranks dead last in forested land, versus Montana which has more than 20 million acres of dense forest, and it just doesn't add up,” Rep. Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeHUD official quits amid Interior Department watchdog controversy Overnight Energy: Outdoor retailer Patagonia makes first Senate endorsements | EPA withdraws Obama uranium milling rule | NASA chief sees 'no reason' to dismiss UN climate report Interior Department sued over withholding details on trophy permits, endangered species MORE (R-Mont.) told The Hill on Monday. 

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“The notion that Reno, Nevada, is a better place for the firefighting systems does not add up. Neighboring California already has these systems. To fly from Reno to Washington or Montana will take more than two hours. That  could mean the difference between a fire being contained quickly or growing out of control and turning deadly,” he said. 

Washington, Idaho and Montana suffered one of the deadliest and costliest summers of forest fires last year and moving the systems to Nevada will leave those states without quick air support, according to Zinke, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. 

In a recent letter to the commander of Air Mobility Command Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, Zinke wrote, "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," he wrote in the April 6 letter. 

Last year, Zinke got a proposal included in the 2016 defense policy bill requiring the Air Guard to study the need for additional wildfire fighting air support in Western states and the impact of relocating MAFFS from North Carolina to more fire-prone areas in the West.  

The report "showed a blatant capability gap in the Northwestern states," Zinke said. 

In addition, Zinke said crews in Great Falls have been training on the MAFFS-equipped C-130s and will be ready to use the equipment. 

Currently, eight MAFFS exist in the U.S. and are operated by four C-130 units: the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne, Wyo.; the 145th Airlift Wing of the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte, N.C.; the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard in Port Hueneme; and the 302nd Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.

Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, the Adjutant General the Montana National Guard, said he was also very disappointed by the decision to move the 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," he said in a recent statement. 

State Senator Ed Buttrey, who represents Malmstrom, said Nevada could already be served with MAFFS already in place in Wyoming, Colorado and California. 

He added that the National Guard had replaced Montana's fighters with transport aircraft but is now not supporting an upgrade of current assets with MAFF systems.

"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," Buttrey said in a recent statement.