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US Facing Air Tanker Shortage

As wildfires continue to burn here in the West, the US 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 last 12 years. 

On a sunny, warm morning at the Boise airport.  A shiny white and green plane slowly pulls onto the red retardant-stained tarmac.  Pilot Lyle Ehalt is returning from a drop over a grass fire near Murphy.

“Basically what we did was lay a line to prevent the fire from spreading further to the west,” Ehalt says.    

Back on the ground, standing next to his tanker, Ehalt says his plane has quite a history.

“Actually, this particular aircraft was used as Air Force One at one point, believe it or not.”

Ehalt says the plane used to carry Gerald Ford.  It eventually ended up in Saskatchewan and was turned into an air tanker.  The plane is back in the states this summer on loan to the US.  That’s because there’s a shortage of this type of plane here.  In 2000, the Forest Service had contracts with private companies for 43 such planes.  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 terminated a vendor contract over a maintenance disagreement.   A fatal crash a month ago in Utah claimed the lives of two Boise pilots.  Besides the loss of life, the accident meant one less plane in an already-shrinking fleet.  Jones says the Forest Service has appealed to Congress for funding for more tankers.

“We’re deeply committed to modernizing and improving our large air tanker fleet, and we’ve been taking a number of steps toward that goal,” she adds. 

In June, the Forest Service awarded contracts that will add a total of seven newer tankers this year and next.  Dan Snider is the president of Neptune Aviation in Missoula, Montana.  His company employed the Boise pilots killed last month.  The company was also one of those given a contract to build bigger, faster tankers.  He says the newer planes will allow pilots to get to fires faster and carry more retardant on each trip. 

“And if you can catch a fire in the initial attack phase, it saves that fire from growing into the megafires where it become a project, you’re constantly trying to deal with it for weeks on end,” Snider says.

The Forest Service says the move to modern tankers means it may need as few as 18 planes on contract in the future.  But Jim Hall, a former National Transportation Safety Board head, sees the government’s response to the shortage as nothing more than a Band-Aid. 

“I’m extremely disappointed,” Hall says.  “This is a national security issue, it’s a public safety issue.  It’s one that demands national attention and national direction.”

Hall led a panel that audited the nation’s firefighting fleet.  The group found a system that needed major upgrades.   That was 10 years ago and Hall says very little has changed since then.   He hopes he’s wrong, but thinks it could take a Katrina-like disaster to give the issue the attention it deserves.  But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack - who oversees the Forest Service – says the tanker issue is on Washington’s radar. 

“But there also has to be a degree of patience because it’s not easy to make up for, literally, decades of a different strategy,” Vilsack says. 

Vilsack is referring to a strategy of more passive forest management that’s led to the buildup of fuels, as well as an air tanker strategy that’s led to an old, shrinking fleet.  But Vilsack is confident that firefighters will have all the aerial support they’ll need this summer.  The Forest Service has added extras helicopters.  And despite Sunday’s fatal crash of a National Guard tanker working a fire in South Dakota – a crash that killed four crew members - Vilsack says military tankers also represent a viable stopgap.   

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio

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