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Forest Service Confident That 9 Air Tankers Are Enough

Rennett Stowe
Flickr - Creative Commons

Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall is urging the U.S. Forest Service to accelerate their acquisition of eight new firefighting air tankers ahead of the impending wildfire season.

The new ‘next generation air tankers’ have been tied up in red tape since 2012 and Senator Udall says that’s unacceptable.

“…Especially in light of forecasts that the 2013 wildfire season could be even more severe than last year, which produced the two most destructive wildfires in Colorado history. The West cannot wait."

Jennifer Jones, spokeswomen for the U.S. Forest Service says contract negotiations for the new planes started last June but protests by two companies have delayed their delivery.

“We issued an amended solicitation in the fall to clarify some of the contract requirements which was an issue which came to light during protest proceedings.”

Because of the protest proceedings, all applicants were allowed to resubmit their plans, which Jones says the agency continues to review.

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
A military C130 equipped with MAFFS during a 2012 test run in Colorado Springs.

There will be up to nine air tankers on exclusive use contract in 2013. Despite that low number, Jones says there are other agencies which can offer planes if needed.

“We are expecting to have up to 25 large air tankers available for fire suppression nationwide. That would include up to nine large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, up to eight CV-580’s through agreements with the Canadian interagency forest fire center, and eight military C-130’s equipped with modular airborne firefighting systems (MAFFS).”

The U.S. Forest Service is optimistic the new next generation planes will be ready later this year, but an official date depends on the completion of contract negotiations. The planes will be larger, faster, and able to carry more fire retardant.

In the early 2000’s over 40 commercial air tankers were on exclusive use contracts. High profile crashes of some of the tankers forced a review and grounding of many planes which were retrofitted Korean War era P2V Neptunes. Less than 20 tankers were active by 2012. And as more and more planes reach their 50 year life expectancy limit, the number has dwindled to just nine exclusive use contracted planes as of this year.

Senator Udall has requested, and the Forest Service is expecting the Air Force to transfer seven surplus cargo planes that will be retrofitted to fight fires. There has also been discussions inside the Air Force on easing requirements for activating C-130’s with MAFFS.

Currently all of the Forest Service’s commercial contract fleet must be engaged before the military planes can be activated.

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