Air tankers

In the last week of January, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., sent letters to two federal agencies asking them to pick up the pace on bringing the nation’s fleet of aerial tankers up to full fire-fighting strength – and into the 21st century. It is a request all Coloradans should heartily second.

That is all the more important in light of testimony last week to the effect that evidence suggesting the state is returning to weather patterns of the 1950s, when drought conditions in Colorado rivaled those of the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. The last thing this state needs is to approach such a period unready and unprepared for the wildfires that drought can only exacerbate.

We have all seen enough of that already in recent years. And we all know that while there are a number of steps that can and should be taken to mitigate the danger of wildfires – many on the individual or community levels – ensuring the supply of aerial tankers is one area where state and local officials need the help of the federal government.

Air tankers, sometimes called slurry bombers for the mix of water and fire retardant they drop, are neither the main nor the final line of defense against wildfire. Often, however, they can be the first.

Aerial tankers do not extinguish major fires; nor are they expected to. But they can stop just-started fires from spreading. They can prevent lightning strikes from becoming wildfires. And they can help control the rate, degree and direction of a fire’s spread. And in all that they can be invaluable.

Nonetheless, these valuable assets are a diminishing resource. A Forest Service spokeswoman told the Herald last week that, in 2000, the agency had 43 large air tankers available for firefighting. Now, though, only nine are under exclusive-use contracts, while another 16 can be used under on-call contracts. That means the other 16 may or may not be available and could at any moment be far from where needed.

Part of the problem is that the air-tanker fleet is aging. One of the most familiar of the large tankers is the Lockheed P-3, a four-engine turboprop that first entered service on Navy anti-submarine duty in the 1960s, and which was based on an airliner that first flew in 1957. In aviation terms, that amounts to ancient history. And, at that rate, something like half the already-shrunken fleet is facing mandatory retirement in a few years.

President Barack Obama signed a law in June to speed the process to allow contracts for air tankers to be awarded. The Forest Service picked four companies out of nine proposals submitted to get seven new tankers online within the year. But, for some reason, that contract process had to be restarted. The resubmitted proposals are under review, with no date having been announced for when the contracts will be awarded.

That is unacceptable all around. Seven aircraft is something akin to one-tenth of what is needed. And “whenever” is an entirely unreasonable timeline for an effort required last year.

As Udall spokesman Mike Saccone told the Herald last week, “The delays have real-life implications for Colorado and the West.”

If, as predicted, the Southwest continues to dry out, the consequences of wildfire will only increase. In 2012, Colorado wildfires caused six deaths, burned 400,000 acres and took 648 structures. How many aircraft would preventing another year like that buy? And for which would we rather pay?

Udall is supported in this by Colorado’s other senator, Michael Bennet. May they both keep this issue at the top of their to-do list.

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