Firefighting planes battle wildfires and old age

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As wildfires continue to burn in the West, the U.S. Forest Service is going to battle this summer with fewer air tankers. The number of planes that drop retardant on fires has shrunk significantly over the past 12 years.

In Boise, Idaho, the shortage of air tankers has led to some unexpected repurposing of aircraft.

"This particular aircraft was used as Air Force One at one point," explains pilot Lyle Ehalt, standing next to his shiny white-and-green tanker at the Boise Airport.

Ehalt, who flew the air tanker over a nearby grass fire, says the plane used to carry President Gerald Ford. It eventually ended up in Saskatchewan and was turned into an air tanker. The plane is back in the U.S. this summer, on loan from Canada.

A Shrinking Fleet

In 2000, the Forest Service had contracts with private companies for 43 air tankers. Today, that number is nine.

"This is something that we are working very hard to rectify," says Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.

She says structural failures led several models to be retired. Last summer, the Forest Service fired one of its vendors. A fatal crash in Utah claimed the lives of two pilots in June. Besides the loss of life, the accident meant one less plane in an already-shrinking fleet.

Contracting Bigger, Faster Planes

Jones says the Forest Service has appealed to Congress for funding for more tankers. "We are deeply committed to modernizing and improving our large air tanker fleet, and we've been taking a number of steps toward that goal," she says.

Two weeks ago, the Forest Service awarded contracts that will add a total of seven newer tankers this year and next.

Dan Snyder is the president of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Mont. His company was given one of those contracts to build bigger, faster planes, which he says can carry more fire retardant and reach fire zones in half the time needed by older aircraft.

"If you can catch a fire in the initial attack phase, it saves that fire from growing into the megafires where it becomes a project [in which] you're constantly trying to deal with it for weeks on end," Snyder explains.

A Change In Strategy?

But Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is disappointed by the new contracts, which he sees as nothing more than a Band-Aid.

"This is a national security issue. It's a public safety issue," Hall says. "It's one that demands national attention and national direction."

Hall led a panel that audited the nation's firefighting fleet. His group found a system that needed major upgrades. That was 10 years ago, and he says very little has changed since then. Hall hopes he's wrong, but thinks it could take a Katrina-like disaster to get the country's attention.

But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, says the tanker issue is on Washington's radar. But he adds, "There also has to be a degree of patience, because it's not easy to make up for, literally, decades of a different strategy." That strategy has involved more passive forest management that's led to the buildup of fire fuels and an old, shrinking tanker fleet.

But Vilsack is confident that firefighters will have all the aerial support they will need this summer. Extra helicopters have been made available. Just last week, the Forest Service began activating National Guard aircraft.

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