Story by Dylan J. Darling • Graphics by Andy Zeigert • The Bulletin

While the federal large air tanker fleet will be nearly twice as big this summer as it was two years ago, there are currently no federal air tankers in Central Oregon.

But that could change quickly if wildfire danger increases or a fire breaks out, said Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. She said she’s often asked where federal air tankers are based. Her answer: not any one place in particular.

“These are nationally mobile, and we move them frequently,” Jones said, “based on current and predicted fire activity.”

On May 20 the U.S. Forest Service announced it was adding four more large air tankers to its “next-generation firefighting fleet,” bringing the total number of large air tankers likely available this summer to 21. In 2012 the federal fleet was down to 11 of the big airplanes after a pair of crashes destroyed one plane and grounded another. Two contract pilots were also killed in the crash that destroyed an air tanker.

In upgrading the federal fleet the Forest Service is moving to larger, faster air tankers based on more modern airframes. The new air tankers include converted airliners, like the MD-87, which Aero Air in Madras has retrofitted for federal firefighting this summer. Along with the large air tankers, which carry more than 3,000 gallons of retardant, federal and state firefighting agencies keep a bevy of smaller air tankers and helicopters on contract for fire season.

Air tankers create fireline by dropping retardant on vegetation ahead of a wildfire’s flame front. Jones said the Forest Service relies on large air tankers for “initial attack,” or the first 24 hours of fighting a wildfire.

“So we want them physically located where we are most likely to have fire activity,” she said, “because then they can get to the fire faster.”

The Redmond Air Center, adjacent to the Redmond Airport, includes an air tanker base, where crews can refill the big airplanes with both fuel and fire retardant. The air center is already fully staffed with more than 40 smokejumpers out of about 80 employees, and ready for wildfire season, said air center manager Maurice Evans.

Like Jones, Evans said there aren’t large federal air tankers at the base yet because fire danger isn’t high and there aren’t any wildfires burning.

“If there is nothing going on here, they are not going to sit them here,” he said.

As of Friday the Forest Service had air tankers mainly stationed in the Southwest, around California, Arizona and New Mexico, where fire season has already started.

The Oregon Department of Forestry also has a pair of its own large air tankers on contract for the coming fire season, said Rod Nichols, ODF spokesman in Salem. Those planes are currently in Central Oregon. Unlike the ever-more- modern federal fleet, the state air tankers — a pair of DC-7s from the 1950s — are “ancient,” he said.

But they get the job done. The planes also have a relatively low number of flight hours for their age.

“For our type of terrain, we prefer the old DC-7s,” Nichols said. “We have no plans at the present to go to jets. Those slower tankers work better for the terrain we protect.”

The ODF is responsible for fire protection on 16 million acres around the state, much of it private forestland. The state used to rely on the federal large tanker fleet, but in 2004 started contracting tankers itself after the Forest Service that year canceled 33 air tanker contracts in response to older model C-130 crashes in previous years.

The “next generation” fleet includes C-130s, but new versions of the cargo plane, Jones said.

Similar to the Forest Service, the ODF is able to move its two tankers around the state. There are tanker bases capable of reloading the DC-7s in Redmond, Medford, Klamath Falls and La Grande.

“We’ll put them where we need them,” Nichols said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,