Fire fighting agencies are facing this season without the ready availability of one important tool -- large air tankers.
There are just 19 of them cleared to fly nationwide this year and none will be based in Nevada. This wasn't always the case.
A few years ago there were at least 33, moved around the country as needed, but more readily available when needed. All that changed one deadly summer.
In 2002, the wings tore off this converted C-130 fighting a fire near Coleville. The 3 crew members were killed. This and another fatal crash later that summer caused a reexamination of an air fleet which had relied on aging former military aircraft. A number were grounded. Two P-2's based in the off-season at Minden are still flying and today are under contract, but both are based in southern California.
Immediate response in our area will depend largely on these 2 single engine aircraft based at Stead and a pair of Nevada Division of Forestry helicopters. The single engine aircraft and the choppers are great for quick, pinpoint response and, if employed while a fire is small, can be very effective, but at some point nothing can replace the big planes which now may be hours away when needed.
There's been talk for some time of an alternative, outfitting the Nevada Air Guard's C-130's with a fire fighting pod. It's a mission the guard is anxious to take on.
"Four of our crews have trained on this equipment. If asked, we're ready to take this mission on." says Guard spokeswoman Capt. April Conway.
But so far the guard has been unable to get its hands on the right equipment. It's called a Modular Airborne Firefighting System or MAFS. It's a pod that slips into a C-130. There is a pair of them, one operational, in the California Air Guard based in the Channel Islands. The California Air Guard is converting to a newer model of the 130 which should free up one of their MAFS which could be used on the Nevada Guard's planes.
The guard and local firefighters say they can make a strong case, one of those MAFS units should be based here in Reno, but it's not their decision to make.
"The Forest Service actually owns those pods. We're just the purveyor, says Conway. It's their decision."
Ironically, much of the rest of the world isn't facing these issues.
They're fighting wildfires with more modern aircraft designed for this purpose. Canada especially has been proactive in developing fire fighting planes while we've continued to get by on an aging and now dwindling fleet of converted ex-military craft.
To quote one agency adminstrator we talked with today., "It's got to change."