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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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“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.”