Entries in US Forest Service (2)


New Firefighting Planes on the Way, But No Help Now

iStockphoto/Thinkstoc(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Forest Service Wednesday said four private companies have won contracts to provide seven “next-generation” firefighting airplane tankers, although they won’t help with wildfires now raging across Western states. The current fleet contracted to fight fires is an average of 50 years old.

The new planes will be jet-powered, fly at 300 knots (about 345 mph) and carry 2,400 gallons of retardant. But the seven new tankers won’t be much help against the 15 large wildfires burning in Western states. Only three of the seven planes will fly this year, and not until late summer, according to a Forest Service news release. The remaining four will not be available until 2013.

A series of high-profile crashes in 2002 and 2004 led to stricter safety standards that eliminated dozens of aging air tankers from the fleet. The number of available planes dropped from 44 in 2006 to only 11 at the beginning of this season. Critics have complained that the Forest Service has moved too slowly to modernize the fleet.

The agency’s own fact sheet calls for as many as 28 large air tankers.

In recent days the Forest Service has called on tankers borrowed from the Canadian government as well as state firefighting agencies in Alaska and California.

One of the companies awarded new contracts Wednesday is Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont. One of its planes crashed June 3 while dropping retardant on a fire in Utah, killing both pilots.

A preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board did not cite a cause. Neptune removed another of its older tankers from service in February after finding a crack in a wing.

In addition to Neptune, contracts were awarded to Minden Air Corp. of Minden, Nev.; Aero Air LLC of Hillsboro, Ore.; and Aero Flite Inc. of Kingman, Ariz.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Forest Service Adds More Air Tankers to Fight Fires

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Facing a season of potentially dangerous wildfires and a dwindling number of large air tankers to help fight them, the U.S. Forest Service Wednesday took steps to add four more planes to its fleet.

The additions will bring the federal fleet of large air tankers up to 13, still far below the number that critics -- and the forest service itself -- say are needed to fight fires adequately from above.

A series of high-profile crashes in 2002 and 2004 led to stricter safety standards that gradually eliminated dozens of older air tankers from the fleet, dropping the number of available air tankers from 44 in 2006 to only 11 this season.

That number fell to nine Sunday, after two pilots were killed when their tanker crashed while dropping fire retardant in Utah.   Another tanker was damaged when its landing gear failed and the crew was forced to make a belly landing in Nevada.  Nobody was injured in that incident.

The causes are under investigation, but the incidents highlight concerns over the age and safety of the firefighting tanker fleet. Both planes were the same model Lockheed P-2V -- airplanes originally designed for the U.S. Navy in the 1940s.

“The average age of the fleet is over fifty years,” Tom Harbour, director of aviation and firefighting management for the Forest Service, told ABC News. “They’re old.”

Critics say the U.S. Forest Service -- which contracts with private aviation companies to fly the tankers -- has moved too slowly to modernize the fleet. The agency has taken bids for the next generation of tankers it says will be faster, safer, and more efficient. Those contracts will be awarded on June 25.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat whose home state of Oregon has had its share of fires, is urging his colleagues to waive the waiting period so the contracts can be awarded earlier. “The sooner the Forest Service can award these contracts, the sooner the companies that receive the awards can begin to prepare to deliver those next-generation air tankers and get them out fighting fires,” Wyden said Tuesday during a speech on the Senate floor.

One of the newly-available tankers announced Wednesday will come from Canada, and another from the state of Alaska. Two more tankers will come from California’s state firefighting agency, CalFire. The forest service is also calling up five large helicopters capable of dropping 700 gallons of water or fire retardant.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio