The government has grounded the firefighting fleet of 33 large air tankers, saying the safety of the aging aircraft cannot be assured.
The Forest Service and the Interior Department are terminating contracts with private companies in five western states for use of the former military aircraft that had been powerful weapons against wildfires.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said Monday the big planes had to be taken out of service.
“Safety is a core value of the firefighting community, and it is nonnegotiable,” he said. The planes pose an unacceptable risk to flyers, firefighters on the ground, and communities near fires, he said.
The government said other aircraft would do the jobs that the air tankers had done. But Western officials, worried about fire danger in a region plagued by continuous drought, said the loss of the planes compounds their problems.
The Forest Service has moved steadily away from relying on air tankers, particularly when fighting large fires, and more toward using heavy helicopters, said Mike Lohrey, incident commander of Pacific Northwest National Incident Management Team II in Oregon.
But air tankers still are considered valuable in what firefighters call initial attack, stopping a wildfire when it is just getting going, Lohrey said. Their big payloads, high speed and long range make them valuable for that job.
“Everybody is concerned,” Lohrey said. “I think one potential result of not having them is a few more escapes and potentially more large fires as a result of that.”
Bill Pierce, aviation officer for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Reno, called it “a major loss. It’s a real hazardous situation not having the tankers. Until we can get some kind of updated fleet, we’re putting a lot of folks at risk.
“We’re hurting as far as the aerial fire suppression goes,” said Pierce. “We have helicopters, but we’re going to be at a drawdown level with those too … Hopefully we won’t get a lot of lightning.”
Between 1994 and 2002, three planes crashed, killing seven crew members. After two of the planes went down in 2002, the Forest Service grounded the contract tanker fleet. The planes were returned to service after a new inspection system was developed. But last month, the National Transportation Safety Board said the safety and airworthiness of the fleet still could not be assured.