Jeremy Meyer of the Denver Post has written a well-researched article about the current state of what is left of the federal air tanker fleet, cut by 80 percent over the last 10 years. He did something that few reporters have done. He actually read some of the largely ignored studies that well-respected experts have completed on how to improve the safety and efficiency of aerial firefighting.
One of the most authoritative studies was contributed by the Blue Ribbon Panel, convened after two museum-age air tankers literally fell apart in midair in 2002. That report as well as the other studies can be found on our Wildfire Documents page. The Blue Ribbon Panel was co-chaired by Jim Hall, former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety board who has an opinion about the current state of the air tanker fleet.
You should read the article, but here are some excerpts:
It’s impossible to know whether the High Park fire could have been stalled in its early stages on June 9 when the lightning-caused fire blew up.
First signs of the fire were called in to dispatchers about 6 a.m. A smaller single-engine air tanker, which can carry about 800 gallons of retardant, was over the fire by 9 a.m.
A heavy air tanker sent from Grand Junction was on the fire by noon, according to Steve Segin, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.
The federal government convened the blue-ribbon panel to study the system, which resulted in a scathing report that blasted the Forest Service’s air tanker system, calling it “unsustainable” and the industry’s safety record of 136 dead pilots since 1958 “abysmal.” At least four large air tankers have crashed since then, killing 10 people, according to a website tracking the fatalities.
The 2002 panel recommended a host of fixes, including that the fleet be modernized, pilots receive more training, planes get more inspections and the contracting process be changed.
Hall, the blue-ribbon panel chair, said he has been dismayed by the lack of urgency in Congress as the threat of fire in the West has increased because of climate change and an epidemic of beetle-killed trees.
“We put out a report 10 years ago that is as current as if we had issued it yesterday,” Hall said. “This reliance on old military aircraft is not the way that the country needs to address a threat this serious. Why the Forest Service or anyone would think individuals who are putting their lives on the line to save homes and lives should be flying that type of aircraft is beyond me.”
Seven next-generation airplanes over the next two years is a good start but not adequate, said Gabbert, whose blog has been following every process.
“It doesn’t come close to fixing the problem,” he said. “Experts say we need 30 or 40 or even 50. This decision should have been made 10 to 20 years ago. They knew this day would come. Most of the Western U.S.’s fire season hasn’t even started yet.
“When the West really gets into the fire season, that will be the proof.”
- Air Tanker Studies article (9/9/2011)
- Air Tankers in the news (6/15/2012)
- All articles on Wildfire Today about air tankers
- List of air tanker studies between 1995 and 2012