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Firefighting tankers spread thin

Aging fleet under increased demand as climate change extends fire season

The U.S. Forest Service is struggling to field enough air tankers to meet firefighting needs during a time when fire seasons seem to be getting worse. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo

The U.S. Forest Service is struggling to field enough air tankers to meet firefighting needs during a time when fire seasons seem to be getting worse.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service is in desperate need of additional firefighting air tankers, and future climate change could stretch already depleted resources.

Last week, NASA scientists met at the annual American Geophysical Union to discuss forest fires and climate change. If carbon emissions continue at current rates, scientists predict an increase in fire risk across the United States. Widespread fires, like those in 2012, would likely occur three to four times per decade by then, instead of once per decade, said Doug Morton of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Doug McBee, executive director of Colorado State Fire Chiefs, said the wildfire season, which used to end in October, appears to be expanding to year-round. This year, the U.S. Forest Service has had to return resources to combat the fires.

When a fire breaks out, air tankers are flown to contain it. The Forest Service typically starts sending contracted air tankers in mid-February and returning them by mid-November, said Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. If a fire breaks out before or after that period, the Forest Service delivers tankers available on “optional-use periods.” Currently, the Forest Service has two large air tankers in service that normally would be grounded. Still, there are no plans to change the schedule of availability for the tankers, Jones said.

Though demand is clearly rising, the number of air tankers available to the Forest Service has plummeted over the last decade. In 2002, the Forest Service had 42 tankers available compared to 11 in 2012.

The fleet has diminished after crashes and reductions from aircraft that could not meet safety standards. Much of the aging fleet is made up of planes such as P2V-7s, aluminum bombers from World War II, one of which crashed in June in Utah. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that from June to July alone this year, three planes crashed, leaving six dead.

When the Forest Service is using its full supply of tankers, the Air National Guard steps in to provide them with more planes. In 2012, the Air National Guard supplied eight military C-130 planes. Although the C-130s are newer, a crash killed four men while fighting a fire in South Dakota in July, marking the first wildfire crash for the Air National Guard since the 1970s.

Contracts are pending for modernized tankers that would allow the Forest Service to expand its fleet in 2013. However, Jones said the Forest Service will continue supplementing its fleet in 2013 with C-130s. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., recently called for air-tanker modernization in a November letter to the Senate subcommittee overseeing the Forest Service appropriations.

Last week, a law passed giving the Forest Service and the Coast Guard priority to surplus C-27Js from the Department of Defense.

This allows the Forest Service to acquire 14 C-27Js to enhance its diminished firefighting fleet at no cost to the Air Force or Forest Service, according to the Helicopter Association International. The C-27Js, manufactured in 2007, would become the newest planes on the Forest Service fleet. But over the summer, the Air Force grounded its entire C-27Js fleet as a precautionary measure after a mechanical failure on one flight.

Leigh Giangreco is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at herald@durangoherald.com

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald Enlarge photo

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

After crashes and tankers were pulled for safety, the U.S. National Forest Service fielded only 11 air tankers during the 2012 fire season. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo

After crashes and tankers were pulled for safety, the U.S. National Forest Service fielded only 11 air tankers during the 2012 fire season.