It's gonna be a bad fire season this year...
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Safety and maintenance lapses caused the U.S. government Monday to cancel
contracts for 33 of its largest firefighting airtankers -- including five in
Oregon -- on the brink of what could become a red-hot wildfire season.
It eliminates the aging stalwarts of an airborne firefighting fleet known
for draping thousands of gallons of fire retardant over blazes across the
West and leaves smaller single-engine airplanes and helicopters to fill in
the gaps. The aging planes include the DC-4, DC-7 and P-3.
Two of the planes were based at the Redmond Air Center. Last summer the
planes battled fires that burned nearly 100,000 acres of national forest
west of Sisters. The center will be assigned other aircraft, but they may
not travel as fast or carry as much retardant as the large tankers, said
manager Dan Torrence.
"In remote areas they're one of the best ways to cool things down enough to
give time for ground crews to arrive," he said.
Federal officials said they will try to substitute other aircraft that could
include large helicopters and military C-130s. But it's possible more fires
may escape control in their early stages and spread owing to especially dry
conditions in western states, including Oregon.
They stressed that rural property owners should take every precaution to
reduce fire hazards around their homes, because the large tankers will no
longer be ready to drop retardant in the path of flames.
The decision to drop the privately owned tankers from the federal payroll
followed a scathing report by the National Transportation Safety Board that
last month said the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior lack
expertise to ensure a safe air fleet.
The report responded to the crash of three tankers since 1994, including two
in 2002, that occurred when wings broke off in flight. The government
stopped using C-130 air tankers following the fatal crashes. Monday's order
drops most remaining two-engine tankers that were among the most visible and
costly part of the annual federal firefighting campaign. Last year's tab for
the tankers was roughly $30 million.
Although the planes endure more stress than even many military aircraft,
their work for the government exempts them from standard safety regulations,
the Safety Board found. The planes terminated on Monday average 48 years
old; their manufacturers may no longer exist, and maintenance does not
account for their age and grueling duty.
"Because all aircraft engaged in firefighting operations are exposed to the
same harsh environment and increased stresses and are likely operating
outside the manufacturers' original design intent, the Board notes that the
deficiencies identified may well apply to all aircraft in the firefighting
fleet," the report said.
Besides the two tankers based in Redmond, two others were based in Lakeview,
one in La Grande and two in Moses Lake, Wash.
The planes could make it from Moses Lake to Medford in 40 minutes and unload
3,000 gallons of retardant to help firefighters etching firelines on the
ground, said Mike Fitzpatrick of the Northwest Interagency Coordination
Center in Portland.
"They can't put a fire out -- you still need people in the ground," he said.
"But speaking as an old firefighter, a tanker can sure give you some help
when you need it."
Without tankers, with Eastern Oregon forests drying rapidly and with
military forces that might otherwise help during fire season occupied in
Iraq, "what it's starting to look like, to us anyway, is the perfect storm,"
Agencies expect to contract for 80 smaller, single-engine tankers and are
trying to hire even more, said Rose Davis of the National Interagency Fire
Center in Boise. They carry 200 to 800 gallons of retardant. Four large
helicopter tankers that will also be on contract this year can carry up to
2,000 gallons each although most firefighting helicopters are smaller and
Helicopters are more maneuverable and can drop retardant more precisely
without returning to an airport for another load. But they do not cover long
distances as quickly, and their payloads are smaller than those of the
Winter moisture in much of the West has evaporated quickly, leaving
overgrown forests especially vulnerable. The amount of water stored in
mountain snows in Oregon has fallen from 30 percent above average in early
March to 40 percent below average a week ago, said Jon Lea of the Natural
Resources Conservation Service.
Firefighting officials stressed the tankers are not the only tool they
employ against wildfires. Well-trained crews on the ground, for instance,
"We've kind of trained the public to think if we don't have a large
airtanker, the fire is not being fought, and that's not right," said Jon
Rollens, regional aviation officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
Tim Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who now runs the Western Fire Ecology
Center in Eugene, said fire crews on firelines often scoff at the big
"It's kind of a long-held saying by firefighters on the ground that air
tankers are mostly for political show," he said. "It makes vivid footage,
but without ground troops in position, the benefits are short-lived."
I'd call that a bad decision.
Maybe we won't have any forest fires for the next 10 years. That would save us alot more money.
That could happen.
Damn! they're still flying DC-4's?
I have an idea. there are lots of early model B-52's sitting in the desert, wouldn't one modified into a tanker be cool?
(Yeah, I know, it'd be a mother of all money hogs, but wouldn't watching one make a low level drop be great?)
Aircraft wear out, get over it. i heard they retired the hand pump horse drawn fire wagons too.
Civilian C-130's are grounded but military C-130's are OK?
Are you aware that the C-130 that crashed last year was routinely operated under the minimum fuel weight required for wing rigidity?
This may be true. But doesn't this smack of big, overreaching gov't in light of the fact that both last years wing failures happened to the same operator, and one who doesn't have the greatest of reputations?