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High Fire Danger Highlights Aging Firefighting Air Tankers

Rennett Stowe/Creative Commons

 The US Forest Service relies on an aging fleet of large, heavy air tankers to fight fires and protect structures and homes. But the fleet is dwindling, and the agency is scrambling to replace it.

Last month's Lower North Fork Fire near Conifer highlighted just how quickly a wildfire can get out of control, and how dependent firefighters are on air resources to contain a major blaze.  

The US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Coordination Center in Lakewood is quiet on most days. However, when there’s a wildfire in the state, the office is bustling.

Steve Segin  is part of that command postwhich coordinates state, regional, and local firefighting resources that flood into Colorado during a large wildfire. 

Air resources are shared throughout the country on an as-needed basis, and Segin is sure there will be enough air support for Colorado if the current wildfire threat continues through the spring and summer.  

“We had one large fire that unfortunately burned up some homes; it created a lot of resource damage. So this year from a wildlife sense, it was quieter then it was last March. Now you look if we have enough resources and are we prepared? Yeah, because it’s that national system.”

Still, the US Forest Service has only 11 air tankers serving the entire country this season, and these are at the end of their 50 year life span.  There are concerns that this won’t be adequate given the fact that much of the western US is coming off a warm and dry winter.  And that's a recipe for a bad fire season.

Bill Gabbert is a retired fire management officer with the National Park Service.  He runs a website called wildfiretoday.com and is considered an expert on wild land fires and air tanker history.

“In 2002 we had about 44 large air tankers on 'exclusive use' contract with the US Forest Service. And then two of those air tankers literally fell apart in mid-air. The wings fell off two of them, and they crashed killing a total of 5 people who were the crew of those two air tankers.”

After the accidents in California and Colorado,  the US Forest Service conducted an audit of its entire fleet and grounded a large number of older planes for structural issues. The tankers still in service today, are actually retrofitted old anti-submarine patrol planes. They’ve been flying since the 1950’s. Gabbert says the agency has failed to adequately address the dwindling number of aging tankers. He’s concerned the planes might not be there if Colorado fire officials call again.

“This situation has been developing for the last 10 years, and we’ve slowly seen the air tankers decline over a 10 year period. There’s a small initiative going on to add a couple of air tankers this year, and a few more next year. What we need to do is triple or quadruple the number of air tankers rather than adding two or three or four a year.”

Karyn Wood is director of operations for the US Forest Service’s National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. She says the agency is working to bring new planes on-line, however finalizing contracts takes time and may not happen until the end of this year. 

“We have advertised our next generation large air tanker contract, and we’re in the process of working [that] through. We’ve had several venders put proposals in, and we’re working through those proposals with our contract  folks. There isn’t much that I can talk about in that contract right now, because it is in the stages of being technically evaluated and that kind of thing.”

There are only two companies that still maintain firefighting air tankers; one of them is Montana-basedNeptune Aviation. A spokesman for the company says they’ve bid on the contract, and are ready to start building the new planes as soon as their bid is approved. Karyn Wood concedes the fleet needs to be replaced, and even expanded. But in the meantime, she says there are plenty of other air resources on hand to fight fires.

“We have a lot of contingencies to bring us back up to speed. We work with department of defense, and we have the eight C130’s that are available to us. And we’ve been very successful in bringing the Canadian resources down when needed, and then the Alaskan resources as well. So we’re covered very well.”

Steve Segin with the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center isn’t worried about contract negotiations or fleet size, he’s just focused on the resources right in front of him.

“You don’t go to the war with the army you want, you go to war with the army you have. And we do the same thing. We fight fires with the firefighters and equipment that we have. So we’re going to adapt our techniques and our tactics to utilize what we have to the best of their ability.”

That army could be getting bigger with faster and more efficient air tankers; even if it won’t happen this year. Multiple companies are now reportedly looking to get into the air tanker business including Lockheed Martin and Conair.


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