David McNew/Getty Images
A 10 Tanker, DC-10 firefighting jet, flies through a smoky sky while dropping Phos-Check fire retardant as firefighters try to prevent the 3,500-acre Sheep fire from reaching the mountain town of Wrightwood, a half-mile away, on October 4, 2009 near Wrightwood, California.
The U.S. Forest Service has unveiled its long-delayed plan to update an aging fleet of firefighting aircraft. The new planes will be expensive — and they aren’t paid for yet.
Wildfire season is getting longer: the Forest Service says it's 78 days longer than it was in the 1980s. The number of acres burned annually by wildfire has doubled since 1960.
California owns the largest fleet of firefighting aircraft in the world: 53 planes and helicopters. But the federal government leases its airtankers.
The aging Forest Service fleet has dwindled from 43 airtankers a dozen years ago to just 11 today. Those planes, on average, are half a century old.
Chief William Metcalf of Fallbrook, vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, says firefighters need the larger federal planes that carry about twice as much fire retardant as the state’s aircraft. "There’s nothing worse than seeing that airtanker drop a load and then fly away to go reload, and while they’re gone, the fire keeps going."
The Forest Service gives contractors several replacement options: retrofit used planes no longer being built, or buy Lockheed Martin's new C-130J. That model costs 10 times as much as the recycled aircraft.
The report also mentions the Canadian-made Bombardier. L.A. County leases an earlier version of the Bombardier, but the Forest Service says the plane has not yet been tested to federal standards.
The Forest Service wants to increase its fleet to about two dozen large airtankers. It now has to convince Congress to pay for leasing contracts for more of the newer, more expensive aircraft.