Russian tankers may be needed for summer fires

Russian tankers may be needed for summer fires

13May 2005


How to go about holding summer wildfires at bay.

Our Opinion: Condition of nation’s air-tanker fleet makes it necessary to look elsewhere for help.

Not many years ago, the United States would have been embarrassed to rely on Russian technology to fill a vital need. But that was in the 20th century, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dot-com boom-bust and the movement of most industrial production to other countries.

Now Americans, especially in western states where wildfires are an annual summer scourge, may be thankful to Russia for offering to let us use its jet firefighting tankers to battle blazes. And, sadly, it may be necessary.

Given the condition of our nation’s air-tanker fleet, which once numbered 33 planes, we have little choice. Most (24) of the planes have been grounded, and one of the seven “safe” planes crashed three weeks ago, killing its three-person crew. If the National Transportation Safety Board finds that a flaw common to those aging aircraft caused the crash, the other six also may get a tarmac timeout. 

But there was good news last week about California putting its modernized fire fleet aloft this summer. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is abandoning his proposal to cut $7 million from the the Department of Forestry budget, enabling us to fly the entire fleet. In deference to the deficit albatross that has weighed down our state’s fiscal policy the past few years, the cuts were part of the governor’s initial budget proposal. It could have grounded three of the state’s 23 planes daily and mothballed some fire engines.

The federal tanker shortage poses a threat to other western states, many of which face drought and acute fire danger. That is where use of an Ilyushin-76 Waterbomber enters the picture. U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, and others want to accept Russia’s offer to use the only jet-propelled tanker on Earth. It can tote up to 15,000 gallons of water, five times the payload of our largest military-surplus tankers.

Russia’s illusion is that we will buy some Ilyushins. Our preference – depending on the economics – would be for Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and their colleagues to pry loose a few mothballed military planes and convert them.

Forest officials say they can make up for the tanker shortage with helicopters, but wildfire experts are skeptical.

We may have to try the Ilyushin or converted 747s this summer and see how they work. We’ve already agreed to employ two SuperScoopers from Canada, lowering the barrier to using foreign aircraft.

But as citizens of supposedly the most technologically sophisticated and civilized nation on Earth, we’re also red-faced to have such a decrepit firefighting fleet that we must rely on other nations’ airplanes. Whatever happened to good old American ingenuity and self-reliance? 


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