U.S. Forest Service beefing up air tanker fleet

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4min 22sec

[photo credit: Alan Radecki/Wikimedia Commons]

The skies over the High Park Fire are busy again today, as two dozen aircraft assist hundreds of firefighters on the ground. That force includes five heavy air tankers, a resource in short supply these days. The Forest Service's fleet is a fraction of what it once was. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports on what the future holds for heavy tanakers.

[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report]

Reporter Megan Verlee: During the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire near Durango, the skies throbbed with the engines of heavy air tankers heading out to drop thousands of pounds of slurry on the massive blaze. Reporter Eric Whitney got a tour of one of them from pilot Bob Woffard.

Bob Woffard: "Alright, now you’re in what used to be the crew compartment, the aircraft when it was a submarine patrol bomber."

Reporter: Already, that tanker was no spring chicken.

Woffard: "This is a P2V Neptune, dash 2. It’s the latest model. Airplane was probably built about 1956."

Reporter: Even now, Cold War-era planes like that one still play a big role in the Forest Service's air tanker fleet. But there are a lot fewer of them flying. A string of deadly crashes early last decade led the Forest Service to re-write its safety requirements, eventually grounding dozens of tankers. And that has some wildfire experts, like Bill Gabbert, worried.

Bill Gabbert: "In 2002 there were 44 large air tankers and that number has dwindled down due to inattention and neglect to the nine we have today."

Reporter: Gabbert runs the website wildfiretoday.com. He says the Forest Service should have a lot more air tankers in its fleet, not so much to fight major blazes like the High Park fire, but to knock out smaller conflagrations before they get out of hand.

Gabbert: "If the nearest air tanker is hundreds of miles away, it’s not going to be able to attack a fire when it’s small. So there need to be dozens of large air tankers, 30, 40, maybe even 50 large air tankers, not the nine we have today."

Jessica Jones: "We are deeply committed to improving and modernizing our large air tanker fleet."

Reporter: Jennifer Jones is with the US Forest Service. She says there will be enough tankers available to meet anticipated fire needs. The Service recently called up eight more of the aircraft on temporary contracts for this fire season. And it’s studying how best to use all of its aviation resources long term. Jones says air tankers get a lot of attention, and may look reassuring to residents waiting anxiously on the ground, but she cautions against putting too much emphasis on their role in fighting fires.

Jones: "Air tankers are just one resource. We also use a lot of heavy helicopters in fire suppression, engines on the ground, firefighters on the ground, all those things. So it’s really that mix of resources that’s important."

Reporter: Long term, the Forest Service does want to increase its fleet, to between 18 to 28 heavy air tankers. A bill pushed by Colorado senator Mark Udall to speed up the contracting process for some of those new tankers arrived on President Obama’s desk yesterday after flying through Congress. The Service expects to have three new tankers in the air before the end of fire season. Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Montana, has already been hard at work outfitting some of these ‘next generation’ tankers. Company president Dan Snyder says it is a bit of a risk to invest in the planes without a long-term contract.

Dan Snyder: "But we also understand there is a need out there. And it’s also a very close relationship with the Forest Service; them telling us what their anticipated needs will be and Neptune getting ready to respond."

Reporter: Neptune owns eight of the nine air tankers the Forest Service currently operates. Two pilots lost their lives earlier this month when one of its planes crashed fighting a fire in Utah. Snyder says the older planes are still reliable, but the new tankers will have a lot of upgrades. For one thing, they’re refurbished passenger jets. That means they’ll cost more than the military surplus aircraft Neptune currently owns, but Snyder says the Forest Service should need fewer of them.

Synder: "We’re dealing with aircraft that can fly twice as fast as the old aircraft, carry as either the same amount or more. So I don’t think you’re going to see the large numbers that you saw back in the 1980s, just because of the nature of how things have changed."

Reporter: Things may be changing, but for this fire season, Forest Service officials, and the communities they’re charged with protecting, will just have to hope the fleet already in the air will is enough.

See more fire stories here.