11:14am

Fri March 21, 2014
Wildfires

Forest Service Bolsters Tanker Fleet Ahead Of Wildfire Season

They’ll be more air power available to fight wildfires in 2014 than in recent years. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho says up to 17 “exclusive use” air tankers will be placed strategically across the country, ready to deploy when fires erupt.

Dwindling in recent years, the U.S. Forest service fleet fell from a high of around 40 planes in the early 2000s to only nine in 2013. The reason? A series of tanker crashes in 2002, and a significantly aging fleet.

“About eight of the air tankers that will be flying this year [2014] are what we call Legacy air tankers,” said Jennifer Jones with the National Interagency Fire Center. “The average age of those air tankers is over 50 years old. And as those air tankers age, the maintenance costs rise, and the safety risks rise. So we are very much mindful that we want to modernize our air tanker fleet.”

Currently there are 10 planes deployed across the country and an additional seven next generation aircraft should be ready soon. It’s taking longer than the agency expected to get those next gen planes into the fleet.

A DC-10 air tanker drops chemical fire retardant below Pilot Peak at the Rim Fire California, 2013.
Credit USDA / Flickr - Creative Commons

“It’s proven to be a very difficult challenge to outfit a [next generation] plane that was built for a purpose other than serving as an air tanker with a retardant tank and also getting them through the FAA certifications and other requirements for them to fly safely and effectively,” Jones said.

Once the new turbine propelled air tankers pass inspection, they’ll fly faster and carry more retardant than older piston driven counterparts. Jones says depending on performance, the U.S. Forest Service plans on maintaining a fleet of 18-28 next generation planes.

“We have awarded contracts for seven of those aircraft,” said Jones. “Obviously additional funding will be needed to get up to that 18 to 28 number. We did have some very good news this year though in that we got a significant increase in our fire budget, about 15 percent over last year.”

The agency is also planning on integrating seven surplus U.S Coast Guard C-130’s to further strengthen the Forest Service fleet. Their transfer was approved by Congress in 2013. Once they’re retrofitted, the Forest Service C-130’s will be be much like the U.S Air Force Reserve MAFFS units seen recently in Colorado, fighting blazes like Waldo Canyon and the Black Forest Fire.

The surplus C-130’s should be in the fleet by 2015.

The national tanker fleet is an integral part of the annual fight against wildfires. State owned fleets, like those in California and Alaska, also play a large role. Those states have agreements to share planes with the U.S. Forest Service. Colorado doesn’t have its own fleet, but state Senator Steve King has been advocating for one since the Galena Fire charred more than 1,300 acres near Fort Collins.

“The beauty of the wildland fire suppression system that we have in the United States is that local, state, and federal agencies all across the U.S. work together and share fire protection assets,” Jones said.

According to the Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management 2,500 wildfires occur in Colorado each year, and eight people have been killed since 2013 when fires occurred in the Wildland Urban Interface. Jones says the role wildfire prevention plays is exceptionally important in keeping the fleet from becoming strained.

“Coloradans really need to understand that wildfires are a powerful force of nature just like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes,” Jones said. “And they’re just as difficult to control. So anyone who lives in or near a forest or rangeland area does need to be concerned about wildfire, and prepared to deal with it if it comes to their backyard.”