Air power dips in wildfire fight

Air power dips in wildfire fight

15 April 2011

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USA — Three firefighting aircraft were temporarily grounded Thursday from service battling grass fires in West Texas, leaving about a dozen available to fight continuing wildfires across the state and sending officials scrambling to bring in the backup units, according to officials with the state and U.S. Forest Service.

Having three grounded planes likely wouldn’t hinder firefighters’ efforts in dousing fires that have so far burned hundreds of thousands of acres across West Texas, said Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service.

“I think we’ll be able to cover our bases, but we’d certainly like to have them back,” he said.

The planes are used to drop flame retardant on burning areas. They were contracted through Aero Union, a California-based aerial firefighting company.

Britt Gourley, Aero Union’s president and CEO, said in an email late Thursday “bureaucratic confusion” caused the planes to be grounded. He did not elaborate, saying he was on a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C., to learn details.

Webb said he was not certain why the planes were grounded, but suspected unknown safety reasons.

The planes were voluntarily grounded by Aero Union, said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. She said she was unaware of the company’s reason for taking the aircraft out of service.

Jones said the three planes constituted the entirety of Aero Union’s fleet currently contracted with the Forest Service.

Aero Union has an agreement to provide eight firefighting planes to the Forest Service during the 2011 firefighting season, she said. But the Forest Service had requested only three so far. The fire season is in its early stages, Jones said.

Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Dallas, said he did not know why the three planes were grounded. He said he did not believe the FAA played a role in grounding the planes.

Webb said he was hopeful but uncertain the planes would return to their firefighting efforts today.

To make up for the loss, two air tankers and four helicopters from one of two other U.S. Forest Service-contracted companies were being flown late Thursday to the Abilene Regional Airport and Eastern New Mexico, Jones said.

Webb said it was unlikely the three grounded planes would have flown Thursday anyway, as high winds grounded much of the Forest Service’s air-based firefighting efforts.

Winds were expected to decrease today, reopening the skies to aerial firefighting efforts, he said.

Wind gusts exceeded 40 mph at the site of the Killough Fire in Crosby and Garza counties, but only caused a few flare-ups, said Justin Musgraves, regional fire coordinator for the Texas Forest Service.

However, the 40-50 mph winds and relative humidity levels between 3 and 7 percent caused “extreme fire behavior” in the Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire in Kent County and burned additional acres.

TxDOT closed northbound and southbound lanes of Texas 70 from U.S. 380 to the Fisher County Line at 4:08 p.m. Thursday due to heavy smoke and heavy firefighter traffic. It was scheduled to reopen at noon today.

It also closed northbound and southbound lanes of U.S. 87 from Texas 86 to FM 145 in Swisher County from 2:32 to 7 p.m. Thursday due to low visibility caused by heavy smoke and blowing dirt.

This was the Forest Service’s update on the active wildfires in the region as of Thursday afternoon:

•Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire in Kent County: 50 percent contained at 20,680 acres.

•Killough Fire in Crosby and Garza counties: Contained at 54,000 acres.

•Swenson Fire in Stonewall, King and Knox counties: 90 percent contained at 103,384 acres.

•Justiceburg East in Garza County: 80 percent contained at 300 acres.

•Tulia Assist in Swisher County: Forest Service personnel and resources responding to cottonseed hull fire.

•Frying Pan Ranch in Andrews County: Forest Service tractor responding.

The Texas Department of Agriculture is collecting donations to help ranchers and farmers who lost livestock and acres of pastureland in the recent wildfires.

The Star of Texas Agriculture Relief fund will provide money to replace broken fencing, restore operations or pay other agriculture relief costs.

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