Nevada Agencies to Double Use of Single-Engine Air Tankers

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Wildfire agencies in Nevada said they hope to more than double the number of single-engine air tankers this summer and increase the use of helicopters to battle wildland fires.

The latest strategy, prepared by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Nevada Division of Forestry, is a response to the recent grounding of 33 large air tankers due to safety concerns.

It has received preliminary approval from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said Kevin Hull, fire management officer for the BLM's Reno office.

"I'm comfortable we're going to get the air resources we have requested," Hull told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

On May 10, the Forest Service and Department of Interior terminated contracts with private companies owning the nation's fleet of heavy air tankers, many of them at least 50 years old, amid concerns by the National Transportation Safety Board that aircraft safety couldn't be assured.

Loss of the tankers, which can drop up to 3,000 gallons of chemical slurry on a fire, was described by fire officials as a potentially dramatic blow.

The heavy tankers are particularly effective during an early attack on a wildfire and often prevent blazes from growing large, experts said.

Single-engine air tankers, or SEATs, have been used in parts of Nevada for years, but their role would be expanded under the state's new fire plan.

Also called air tractors, the planes are essentially heavy-duty crop dusters. They drop red clouds of fire retardant just like the heavy tankers, but their load is limited to 800 gallons.

Officials said they were impressed with the effectiveness of the SEATs last summer, even with their limited retardant load.

"They were more effective than I think some of us thought they were going to be," said Gary Schiff, chief of the Forest Service's Carson Ranger District.

This summer's air strategy would increase the number of SEATs across Nevada from six to 15. Three would be based in Stead, another three in Minden. By directing several of the smaller aircraft to a fire, officials hope to closely match the capability of the bigger tankers.

"They would work in tandem. You'd bring them in one right behind the other and then you'd somewhat equal what the big tankers can do," said Steve Robinson, natural resource adviser for Gov. Kenny Guinn.

The fire plan would also increase federal and state firefighting helicopters based in Nevada from seven to 12, Hull said. They battle wildfires by dousing flames with buckets of water.

Other aerial resources can be tapped from the Nevada Air National Guard, which operates heavy helicopters that can drop thousands of gallons of water.

Backup can come from California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which owns 23 twin-engine air tankers unaffected by this months grounding of the big privately owned tankers.

With the region's wildfire season coming early and looking potentially severe, Robinson acknowledged loss of the nation's aging fleet of heavy air tankers is viewed with concern.

"I think anybody in the business is concerned," Robinson said.