Tanker crash shows US firefighting fleet badly needs overhaul, critics say

Grounded for a day after a deadly crash in South Dakota, firefighting C-130 tankers have taken to the skies again. The questions remain about whether the Forest Service has enough air power. 

By , Staff writer

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    A C-130 from Peterson Air Force Base flies past Pikes Peak Thursday during a flight over the Waldo Canyon Fire burning west of Colorado Springs, Colo. A C-130 based out of North Carolina crashed while fighting wildfires in South Dakota Sunday.
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The crash of a firefighting air tanker in the Black Hills of South Dakota on Sunday and the subsequent grounding nearly half of the planes currently fighting fires in the US has sharpened longstanding questions about whether the US has the air power necessary to fight wildfires.

On Tuesday, the grounded Air Force C-130s began rotating back into service to fight some 50 active fires in the West. The fires have spread at alarming rates, putting the focus on air tankers to cool down the leading edges of the fires.

All sides agree that the nine planes contracted to the US Forest Service this year – together with seven Air Force C-130s called on this summer – are too few for the mounting threat of wildland fires from rising temperatures and the spread of cities into rural landscapes. A decade ago, the Forest Service had 43 planes on contract.

The Forest Service has forwarded a plan to Congress for as many as 28 new planes, but this fire season – with fierce fires and three plane crashes so far – has exposed the need for far greater urgency and vision from Washington, critics say. 

“We’ve seen this thing coming for the last 20 years: Eight of our planes were bought during the Korean War for maritime patrol, not flying low and slow over mountainous terrain and diving into smoky canyons,” says Bill Gabbert, a veteran wildland firefighter who now blogs at Wildfire Today, in a phone call from a “somber” fire scene near where the National Guard C-130 crashed Sunday. “The fact is, the Forest Service has done virtually nothing to rebuild the fleet.”

This season, two of the Forest Service's contracted planes were lost, one to a crash that claimed two lives in June, the other to a crash landing that left the craft unusuable. Sunday’s crash, which killed four members of the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Expeditionary Wing and injured two others, happened only days after the 145th was called in.

Last month, President Obama expedited an order for three 1980s-era tankers, which will now come online in August, as the wildfire season winds down. Four more planes will be added in the next two years. But Mr. Gabbert calls this a "Band-Aid" solution.  

The way he sees it, the Forest Service allowed itself to slide into a bad situation without having a plan to get out of it. The crisis largely took shape in 2002, when a firefighting C-130 literally lost its wings and crashed while fighting wildfires in California. That set off a new safety regimen, which was perhaps needed, but decimated the overall fleet. Few contractors were willing or able to meet the government's new standards for the price offered. 

Just last year, President Obama cancelled the contract of one contractor that supplied eight air tankers, citing maintenance noncompliance. Currently, only two contractors are supplying the nine tankers that are for the Forest Service's exclusive use. (In addition to the seven Air Force C-130s, the Forest Service can also call upon three additional "emergency" contract planes, but has not yet done so this year.)

Critics like Gabbert consider this a piecemeal approach that shows the Forest Service isn't making tankers a high enough priority. Leadership at the Forest Service and its parent agency, the US Department of Agriculture, still see aerial firefighting as an “auxiliary mission,” says Jim Hall, one of the authors of a federal blue-ribbon panel report 10 years ago.

“We’ve got the best aerospace capability in the world, and we just haven’t aimed it at this mission,” says Mr. Hall, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "I fear it’s going to take the US losing a major western city before we finally get the type of attention and leadership we need.”

Federal officials acknowledge that the current situation is not ideal. "There’s really been a series of events … that significantly reduced the number of air tankers on exclusive contracts," says Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The fleet modernization program the Forest Service handed to Congress this spring, which includes a plan to retire a fleet of 50-year-old planes and replace them with up to 28 retrofitted planes from the 1980s, is an attempt to address that. So, too, is the interim plan expedited by the president last month. 

Even so, Ms. Jones says the Forest Service can even now meet the nation's firefighting needs. The Forest Service fights only 8 percent of its fires by air tankers. It’s still fire managers and the crews they commandeer on the ground, not planes dropping fire retardants, that bear the major responsibility for putting out big fires, officials add.

But veteran wildland firefighers say air tankers are a “major tool,” especially if used early on to curtail a conflagration from becoming one of the “mega fires” that have threatened parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and South Dakota for weeks.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) appeared to agree last week. 

"The one thing that keeps coming back to me is that the sooner you can get on these fires and the more resources you can get on them ASAP" the better, Governor Hickenlooper said. "At this point at this level of fire concentration, we're probably right at the edge of our limit, to be perfectly blunt. Now that we see what that limit is, perhaps we do need more."

A group of US senators recently raise the issue in a letter to the US Government Accountability Office: “Concerns have increasingly been raised that the federal agencies responsible for responding to wildland fires … do not have the appropriate number and mix of aircraft that will be needed for wildland fire suppression operations.”

But last week, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asked for patience in an interview on NPR: "It's not easy to make up for, literally, decades of a different strategy." That strategy, NPR pointed out, “has involved more passive forest management that's led to the buildup of fire fuels and an old, shrinking tanker fleet.”

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