Senator presses for air-tanker upgrade

Aging fleet seen as inadequate to deal with nation's wildfires

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark Udall mailed letters to two federal agencies this week urging swifter action to modernize the nation's fleet of fire-fighting air tankers.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Udall, D-Colo., expressed concern about delays in acquiring “next generation” large air tankers from private contractors to help fight wildfires.

The current fleet of air tankers is more than 50 years old, and half of the fleet will face mandatory retirement within a decade, according to U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“The delays have real-life implications for Colorado and the West,” said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone in a telephone interview Tuesday.

In 2012, six civilians died in wildfires in Colorado, according to Udall's letter. Nearly 400,000 acres burned and 648 structures were lost in the state because of wildfires, the letter said, including in the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.

In 2000, the U.S. Forest Service had 43 large air tankers available to fight wildfires, Jones said. Today, only nine are under guaranteed, exclusive-use contracts, with 16 more under on-call contracts.

The role of the large air tankers is to drop fire retardant that decreases the intensity and rate of spread, so firefighters on the ground can construct containment lines, she said.

“Aircraft alone don't put out wildfires,” she said. “We have the best-equipped fire-fighting force in the world.”

In June, President Barack Obama approved a law that would expedite the process to award contracts for air tankers. Udall was one of the legislation's co-sponsors.

Nine companies submitted proposals to bring seven “next generation” air tankers into service in 2012 and 2013, and the U.S. Forest Service selected four companies in June with the intention of awarding them contracts, according to Jones.

But hang-ups caused the contract process to be started over.

The resubmitted proposals were due Nov. 1, and the U.S. Forest Service is still reviewing them, Jones said. There is no timeline for when contracts will be awarded.

It's too soon to tell what the 2013 wildfire season will be like, according to Ed Delgado, a meteorologist and the national program manager for predictive services at the National Interagency Fire Center.

Regardless, firefighters hope to get an estimate of the air tankers they will have at their disposal this year, said Doug McBee, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., supports Udall's letters, according to Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi, and is also working to prioritize the modernization of the country's air-tanker fleet.

Stefanie Dazio is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern with The Durango Herald. You can reach her at sdazio@durangoherald.com.

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