Fewer slurry bombers being used to fight wildfires | AspenTimes.com

Fewer slurry bombers being used to fight wildfires

Colleen O'Connor
The Denver Post/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado

A plane drops fire retardant on the Schultz Fire Tuesday, June 22, 2010 in Flagstaff, Ariz. More than 300 firefighters are battling the Northern Arizona blaze. (AP Photo/Matt York)

DENVER – As Western wild fires burn bigger and more intensely, the most effective group of tools in the firefighting arsenal is headed for retirement.

The fleet of slurry bombers used to drop fire retardant has dwindled to 17 from 44 in 2004, and by 2012, the big planes that rumble across Colorado skies during fire season will begin to be phased out because they are old and costly to maintain.

Until funding for a new fleet of big tankers is found, the U.S. Forest Service will rely on heavy helicopters and single-engine air tankers known as SEATS to battle blazes in hard-to-reach places.

An unprecedented situation is possible “because of forest conditions and how dry the forest is in the West,” said Jim Hubbard, the U.S. Forest Service’s deputy chief for state and private forestry. “That poses a real risk that we try to make sure we’re providing coverage for every day.”

The feds are still hammering out how to fund the $2.5 billion it will take to replace the tankers – aircraft that firefighters say are the best first strike in a wildland firefight.

In the meantime, state fire managers have contracts to use at least two SEATS to provide the initial attack on fires, said Sergio Lopes, the Colorado State Forest Service’s aviation manager.

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“If the season is getting very busy, and there is a high risk for fire, there is the possibility to bring in a third single-engine air tanker under the contract,” he said.

The federal Bureau of Land Management also has two SEATS available to Colorado.

The state’s five-year SEAT contract ends next year, and Colorado lawmakers will need to consider a new deal then.

“My hope is that we will be able to continue having a long-term contract,” said state Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Breckenridge, a wildland firefighter who has fought fires in Colorado and California. “With the budget challenges, we may have to do a one-year contract, and we might have additional flexibility with folks on call. The challenge with that is, when there are fires, we need air support right away.”

If there are competing large fires in other Western states, then there could be a significant wait for available SEATs.

“I think we need to plan for the worst because we never know what the fire season will bring,” Gibbs said.

Since 1988, the number of forest fires of 1,000 acres or more has quadrupled, the typical fire burns six times more land and the fire season is 78 days longer, according to Jeff Jahnke, director of the Colorado State Forest Service.

If the worst happens – multiple fires raging out of control in numerous Western states – a fleet that relies mostly on heavy helicopters and would be able to handle it, Hubbard said.

But firefighters such as Gibbs would rather not risk it.

“They are like tools in the toolbox, and it’s really important to have them all, depending on what the fire does,” Gibbs said. “We need a broad range of tools that the state should be able to utilize if need be.”

The dwindling number of big tankers, which can fly longer distances and carry more slurry to remote fires than SEATS, is worrisome for the 2010 season because conditions in the West are drier than normal and the potential for wildfire is higher.

That’s especially true in Colorado, where nearly 1 million people live in areas that are at high risk for forest fires.

In 2002, there were two fatal tanker accidents in the nation, including one near Estes Park. In 2004, safety concerns grounded about half the fleet. The remaining planes roam the West, moving from fire to fire as they are needed.

In Colorado, the planes are serviced and loaded with slurry at airports in Broomfield, Pueblo, Durango and Grand Junction.

“They are aging, military-surplus aircraft, in some cases 50-plus years old,” said Hubbard, formerly Colorado’s state forester. “In 2012, we start losing (more) when we start rotating some out of service.”

The U.S. Forest Service estimates it will take $2.5 billion to replace the leased fleet of heavy air tankers, which cost up to $75 million each. The Forest Service must buy the planes because they can’t be leased from manufacturers at a reasonable cost, according to an audit of the purchase proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last summer.

“I hope Congress would take this seriously and not wait for another large air tanker to go down, but look at the safety of pilots and communities,” Gibbs said. “These huge tankers carry a tremendous amount of fire retardant and can do wonders for slowing down or containing fires, which protects communities and vital resources.”