USA –– Only nine heavy air tankers remain in the U.S. Forest Service’s fleet to battle a wildfire season expected to last through the fall, worrying critics who fear the lack of resources has left forests vulnerable. A decade ago, the fleet numbered 44.
Eight of the remaining planes, including three flying over the High Park fire in Larimer County, were built at least 50 years ago to serve as military planes patrolling the ocean.
Despite the concerns, officials with the Forest Service believe they have adequate aerial resources, even as they scramble to bring newer planes on line by late summer.
“We are confident that we can mobilize the air support that we need when the threat arises,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.
Others are not so sure, saying the aging and depleted fleet is an example of government neglect that could have disastrous results the fire season in the Western U.S. has only just begun.
“I am extremely concerned,” said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and head of a blue-ribbon panel in 2002 that issued a list of recommendations for the Forest Service to improve its fleet.
“It’s been 10 years, and precious little has been done,” Hall said. “We are going to see one of the major cities in the West go up in fire because of this inaction.”
Federal officials say they are aware of the problem and have begun a program to modernize the fleet with seven large air tankers over the next two years an effort highlighted Wednesday when President Barack Obama signed a bill to speed up the contracting process and add three more tankers by mid-August.
The Forest Service, which doesn’t own any of its firefighting aircraft, contracts with private companies.
Obama included $24 million to contract for more planes in the 2013 budget, and four companies are under contract to provide next-generation aircraft that will carry at least 2,400 gallons of fire-suppressing retardant and, when fully loaded, have cruise speeds of at least 300 knots (340 mph).
Critics argue that the effort is too little and fear it may be too late.
“It’s nice, but this problem isn’t fixed with a stroke of the pen,” said Tony Kern, a former bomber pilot who headed the Forest Service’s aviation program until 2004 and now owns a training and consulting firm in Colorado Springs. “You need to have the airplanes available now.”
Heavy air tankers are not a panacea for fighting fires.
They don’t extinguish blazes, but they can be used to strategically lay retardant on a fire line to suppress flames and slow the spread of a fire until ground crews arrive.
Tankers are most effective in the initial stages of fighting a wildland fire, able to keep small fires from growing large. Studies have shown that one or two tankers can be as effective as eight large helicopter tankers in the initial attack. In the past, a goal was to have tankers in strategic areas so that they could get to a newly reported fire within 20 to 30 minutes.
That is increasingly hard to do with fewer aircraft, said Bill Gabbert, a former fire manager who now writes a wildland firefighting blog.
As the numbers of heavy air tankers have declined from 44 in 2002 to only nine under contract today, the Forest Service’s success at catching fires early also has fallen.
A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General estimated that 150 fires escaped initial attack in 2007 alone, costing the federal government up to $450 million more than it would have spent if the fires were stopped in their earliest stages.
It’s impossible to know whether the High Park fire could have been stalled in its early stages on June 9 when the lightning-caused fire blew up.
First signs of the fire were called in to dispatchers about 6 a.m. A smaller single-engine air tanker, which can carry about 800 gallons of retardant, was over the fire by 9 a.m.
A heavy air tanker sent from Grand Junction was on the fire by noon, according to Steve Segin, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.
Windy, dry and hot conditions that day blew the fire out of control.
Newest plane is 51 years old
Officials say they are satisfied with the aerial resources attacking the fire, which include five heavy air tankers stationed at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield two CV-580s from an agreement with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre and three P2Vs under contract through private companies.
The newest plane in the group is 51 years old. The oldest was built in 1953.
Ten years ago, the Forest Service’s aging fleet of contracted airplanes came under intense scrutiny after two of them literally fell apart in midair while fighting fires, killing a total of five people.
One of those planes, a PB4Y-2 originally built for the Navy during World War II, plummeted to the ground near Estes Park when its wings snapped off during flight, killing both pilots. That plane went down weeks after a similar incident in California that was captured on dramatic video.
The federal government convened the blue-ribbon panel to study the system, which resulted in a scathing report that blasted the Forest Service’s air tanker system, calling it “unsustainable” and the industry’s safety record of 136 dead pilots since 1958 “abysmal.” At least four large air tankers have crashed since then, killing 10 people, according to a website tracking the fatalities.
The 2002 panel recommended a host of fixes, including that the fleet be modernized, pilots receive more training, planes get more inspections and the contracting process be changed.
In 2004, the Forest Service grounded 33 former military air tankers for safety inspections, leading to more planes being eliminated from the pool.
The 2009 inspector general’s report accused the Forest Service of weakly justifying to Congress its need for newer planes. The report said the then-fleet of 19 tankers should be retired, saying that “by 2012 the remaining air tankers will begin to be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy.”
Last year, the Forest Service ended a contract with a vendor that supplied up to eight planes because the company was not meeting the agency’s air-worthiness protocol, said Jones, the Forest Service spokeswoman.
That left 11 planes on contract for the 2012 season.
On June 3, one of those P2V tankers, similar to some of the planes flying over Larimer County this past week, crashed as it dumped retardant on a 5,000-acre fire near the Utah-Nevada border, killing two on board. The NTSB’s preliminary report of the crash said the plane, built in 1962, veered off its flight path while following the lead plane.
That same day, another P2V of the same vintage was forced to make an emergency landing at Nevada’s Minden-Tahoe Airport after part of its landing gear failed to descend. That took the contracted fleet from 11 to nine.
Eight of those remaining planes are at least 50 years old, according to Forest Service officials.
This year’s aerial resources are adequate, agency officials say. For example, officials are using more water-dropping helicopters and single engine air tankers to augment the heavy bombers.
In addition to the planes on contract, the Forest Service has mobilized eight other large air tankers, including four CV-580s from Canada, one CV-580 from Alaska and one DC-10 that can carry 11,800 gallons of retardant that is fighting fires in Arizona. Two CAL FIRE S-2Ts are operating on an agreement with California and are available only for use in that state.
That means the agency is able to deploy 17 tankers with three more due this summer, said Jones.
The Forest Service also can petition for the use of eight military C-130s that are equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems. Those aircraft can be called into the fight once private resources are fully tapped or unavailable.
Nevertheless, critics and lawmakers continue to demand that the Forest Service add more planes.
“I am unconvinced”
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., in April wrote a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, pointing out the lack of aerial support.
“I am unconvinced the (Forest Service’s) current air tanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season,” he wrote. “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.”
When that letter went out, the Forest Service had already issued its modernization strategy, saying in a February report that the P2Vs should be retired by 2021 and that the fleet should eventually be replaced with newer and faster planes.
The report said the fleet should consist of up to 28 “next-generation” tankers that carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant. And Obama’s signing of the bill last week cut the wait period by 30 days.
“This is a major milestone in our efforts to modernize the large air tanker fleet,” said Tidwell.
The money is now there for the next two years for seven next-generation planes to be supplied by four companies.
Plans presented to Congress call for 18 to 28 next-generation tankers for the system over the next few years. Future funding for all but seven of those planes is up in the air.
“You would pretty much have to call what we have at this moment as nothing more than an ad-hoc patchwork quilt to fix this,” said William B. Scott, who recently retired as the Rocky Mountain bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and who also served on the 2002 blue-ribbon panel.
“We are getting planes from Canada, we have a smattering of old ones and ones coming online in the late summer at best,” he said. “The point is they are scrambling to try to get enough together for this fire season.”
Hall, the blue-ribbon panel chair, said he has been dismayed by the lack of urgency in Congress as the threat of fire in the West has increased because of climate change and an epidemic of beetle-killed trees.
“We put out a report 10 years ago that is as current as if we had issued it yesterday,” Hall said. “This reliance on old military aircraft is not the way that the country needs to address a threat this serious. Why the Forest Service or anyone would think individuals who are putting their lives on the line to save homes and lives should be flying that type of aircraft is beyond me.”
Seven next-generation airplanes over the next two years is a good start but not adequate, said Gabbert, whose blog has been following every process.
“It doesn’t come close to fixing the problem,” he said. “Experts say we need 30 or 40 or even 50. This decision should have been made 10 to 20 years ago. They knew this day would come. Most of the Western U.S.’s fire season hasn’t even started yet.
“When the West really gets into the fire season, that will be the proof.”