USA — Forest Service acknowledges need to upgrade air tanker fleet
SUMMIT COUNTY The potential for a long and dangerous fire season this week prompted Sen. Mark Udall (DColo.) to express concerns about the U.S. Forest Services capability to fight fires from the air.
In a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Udall said hes not sure the agencys air tanker fleet is is capable of keeping Coloradans safe in a timely and effective manner. He stressed the importance of having a reliable fleet to adequately address wildfire threats across the state and country.
Though air tankers are only one part of the wildfire-response effort, they play a critical role in the initial attack. With an aging fleet that has dwindled from 44 air tankers in 2002 to 11 this year, and will continue to decline in the years to come, I am unconvinced the USFSs current air tanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season, Udall wrote. Again, I appreciate the attention USFS has already paid to this critical issue, but it is essential that the USFS be prepared today for a fire season that is already looming large in Colorado.
A spring drought, combined with the bark beetle epidemic, could set the stage for big wildfires across the West, stretching Forest Service resources to the limit.
Udall has been tried to leverage his position on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to ensure firefighting and forest management agencies have the proper resources for keeping communities safe.
In February, Tidwell announced a plan to bolster its air capability during the coming years with faster planes that can carry bigger payloads for longer distances.
Tidwell acknowledged that the agencys current fleet poses some safety risks due to its age and explained that half the planes face mandatory retirement within the next 10 years.
We need a core fleet of the next generation large airtankers to supplement our boots-on-the-ground firefighters for what we know will be longer and more severe wildfire seasons in years to come, Tidwell said. Not only will these newer, more effective airtankers help us keep fires contained and communities safe, they will also protect our brave men and women on the fireline.
Although no large airtanker has been built specifically for firefighting, several aircraft were designed to handle similar stresses. Recommendations for the next generation of airtankers include:
Capabilities of carrying a minimum of 1,800 gallons of mixed retardant with more than 3,000 gallons preferred.
A minimum cruise speed of 345 mph for quick fire response over long distance.
Powering by turbine engines, which are more reliable, more fuel efficient, and require less maintenance than older aircraft piston engines.
Capabilities of operating from most federal airtanker bases.
Forest Service contract structural integrity program requirements must be met.
The effectiveness of airtankers on a wildfire is directly proportional to its speed and load capacity, Tidwell said. Large airtankers can be effective in thick forest canopies and areas of dense brush or timber. A larger load capacity also allows large airtankers to split their retardant loads to support different parts of a fire without delay of returning to base.
The best mix of tools for wildland firefighting includes ground and air resources. However, retardant applied from large airtankers may slow the progress of a wildfire so firefighters on the ground can safely construct a fireline to contain it.
Airtankers provided under contract by private industry will continue to be essential in effective wildland firefighting. Long term, the agencies will continue to explore the costs and benefits of all types of aircraft and ownership models.
The fleet of aircraft that are used for wildland fire suppression also includes water scoopers, single engine airtankers, very large airtankers and helicopters.
Udalls letter to Tidwell:
Dear Chief Tidwell:
With 98 percent of Colorado under drought conditions and the fire season tragically having started early this year, I write regarding my growing concerns with the U.S. Forest Services (USFS) aging air tanker fleet.
As you know, the Lower North Fork Fire already burned 4,100 acres in a fast-moving wildfire that took the lives of three Coloradans this year. While I applaud the remarkable work of the wildland firefighters, I have larger concerns about our capacity to respond to future fires, particularly with many aircraft in the air tanker fleet nearing the final years of their lifespan.
Though air tankers are only one part of the wildfire-response effort, they play a critical role in the initial attack. With an aging fleet that has dwindled from 44 air tankers in 2002 to 11 this year, and will continue to decline in the years to come, I am unconvinced the USFSs current air tanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season. Given the very real and present danger of wildfire in Colorado and throughout the drought-ridden West, and the very possible event of multiple wildfires in different parts of the country, an aging fleet may be ill-prepared to respond with the necessary air support.
Again, I appreciate the attention USFS has already paid to this critical issue, but it is essential that the USFS be prepared today for a fire season that is already looming large in Colorado. I stand ready to work with you to do whatever is necessary to protect our capacity to fight fire and ensure the safety of Coloradans.