Forest Service adds four air tankers

Drought, onset of fire season spur need for more modern aircraft

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

Published May 21, 2014 at 12:01AM

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Forest Service augmented its wildfire fleet Tuesday, adding four new air tankers as fire season looms across the parched West.

The addition of a DC-10 and three BAe-146s brings the agency’s total of large air tankers to 21. In addition, the Forest Service operates more than 100 helicopters, and it can borrow additional aircraft from Alaska, California, Canada and the Department of Defense.

“We continue to increase and modernize the fleet of aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in a prepared statement. “These new planes will combine with our existing fleet to support our heroes on the ground fighting wildfires to keep our resources and communities safe.”

The DC-10, the second purchased by the Forest Service, carries up to 11,600 gallons of water or retardant and flies at 430 mph, according to a news release.

The smaller BAe-146s can deliver a payload of 3,000 gallons and fly at speeds around 350 mph.

The Forest Service has been steadily updating its firefighting fleet since 2012, when all but one of its 11 air tankers were more than 50 years old. Two crashes that year grounded one plane and destroyed another, killing two Forest Service contract pilots.

An additional eight C-130s, equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems and similar in size to the BAe-146s, are in the midst of recertification for use this fire season.

Most of California is under exceptional or extreme drought, according to the latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Much of Oregon, including parts of Central Oregon, is experiencing severe drought.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., praised the Forest Service’s expansion of its firefighting fleet, noting that fire season has already started.

“Devastating wildfires are ripping through California, and up the coast drought dangerously dries out much of Southern Oregon,” Wyden said. “The administration’s deployment of these next-generation air tankers is crucial for this and future fire seasons and will give invaluable aid to the firefighters on the ground. I will continue to work hard with my colleague (Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho) to pass our wildfire funding bill that would treat wildfires like the natural disasters they are.”

Earlier this year, the Forest Service projected it would exhaust its firefighting budget in July, well before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. With other lawmakers from Western states, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, Wyden has proposed legislation that would treat the largest 1 percent of wildfires, which consume 30 percent of the federal firefighting budget, as natural disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes.

Response would be funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This approach has the support of the Obama administration, which included the change in funding in its 2015 budget request.

Under the current wildfire-suppression plan, agencies project their annual fire costs by taking the average of the previous 10 years.

Between 2004 and 2013, both the Department of Interior’s and the Forest Service’s wildfire costs exceeded the 10-year average seven times. When those funds run out, agencies are forced to use money allocated for other purposes. While Congress often backfills those accounts, work on other projects, such as hazardous fuels reduction intended to mitigate the damage caused by future fires, can be thrown off schedule.

Last year’s Yosemite Rim Fire, which burned more than 250,000 acres, cost $100 million to fight. In 2012, the Pole Creek Fire near Sisters consumed almost 27,000 acres in the Deschutes National Forest and cost $18 million to fight.

Last year, more than 4.3 million acres burned in wildfires, down from 9.3 million in 2012, which was one of the three worst fire seasons on record. Six of the worst fire years since 1960 have occurred in the past decade, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com