(This article was updated on September 14 to reflect that there are now eight Convair CV-580 air tankers working temporarily in lower 48 States.)
The U. S. Forest Service is apparently feeling the heat from the public and politicians about the agency’s management, or lack thereof, of the large air tanker fleet, which through neglect has dwindled from the 44 we had in 2002 to the 11 large air tankers currently on exclusive use contracts. The decline began with the crash of two very old military surplus air tankers in 2002, which prompted the permanent grounding of similar antiques. But in the nine years since those crashes, nothing significant has been accomplished to rebuild the fleet.
This morning there were 11 air tankers on exclusive use contracts, plus 12 hired temporarily on a day basis (including one DC-10) and six or seven military C-130 MAFFS on a temporary assignment. There were no federal large air tankers in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota,
Montana, or Washington. I wonder if the firefighters on the ground in those states know they will get no large air tanker support for the initial attack of fires?
Here is a statement that was issued around September 8, 2011 by the U. S. Forest Service. Our comments are embedded in red.
Statement from US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on Aircraft Support for Texas, Other Wildfires Throughout the Country
The Forest Service is working hard right now with our federal, state and local partners to combat fires in Texas, California and several other states. I want to assure the public that the Forest Service has ample aircraft strategically placed around the country to support on-the-ground teams combating this year’s wildfires. Our current available airplane fleet includes: “Ample aircraft”? One of the many USFS air tanker studies shows that we should work toward a goal of 32 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Now we have 11.
- 17 Large Air Tankers which have a capacity of delivering an average of over 2000 gals. of water or retardant per trip. We have 11 “Large” air tankers on exclusive use contracts. Within the last few weeks the USFS brought in on a temporary day by day basis eight “Large” Type 2 Convair CV-580 air tankers, three from the state of Alaska and five from the Canadian government.
- 1 DC-10 Very Large Airtanker with a capacity of 12,000 gals. This was hired on a day by day Call When Needed contract. The USFS refuses to award any exclusive use contracts for Very Large Air Tankers, such as the DC-10s or the 747, which can carry 11,800 and 20,000 gallons, respectively.
- 8 military aircraft specially outfitted to fight fires with an average capacity of 3000 gals. Six have been activated. Four are in Texas and two are in Idaho. CAL FIRE may have activated a seventh one for state responsibility fires in California.
- 3 CL- 215 scooper aircraft which can deliver an average of 1300 gals. of water per trip.These are on a Department in Interior CWN contract. They are trying to get two more through an international agreement with Canada.
- More than 100 wildland fire response helicopters, including exclusive use contracts for:
- 2 dozen Type-1 heavy helicopters
- Over 40 Type-2 medium helicopters on national contracts
- Over 50 Type-3 light helicopters on local or regional contracts
- Additional helicopters are available through call-when-needed contracts
All of these assets support the more than 16,000 federal firefighters (10,500 are Forest Service), and 1000 Forest Service firefighting engines.
The Forest Service takes the safety of our employees and contractors seriously and we insist on maintaining stringent airworthiness standards that were developed after two airtankers crashed in 2002, resulting in the loss of both crews. The Forest Service does not take shortcuts on safety. No responsible person is saying waiting more than nine years to make a decision about how to rebuild the air tanker fleet is taking a “shortcut”.