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7 air tankers on way, feds say

By Stefanie Dazio
Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service will award contracts for seven new fire-fighting air tankers soon to update the aging fleet, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a letter Friday to Sen. Mark Udall.

Vilsack was responding to a letter from Udall, D-Colo., sent nearly two months ago. Udall had requested an update from the Cabinet secretary the current fleet and the Forest Service’s attempts to acquire seven “next generation” large air tankers from private contractors, the Herald previously reported.

Large air tankers drop fire retardant that decreases the intensity and rate of spread, so firefighters on the ground can construct containment lines, said the Forest Service.

The modernization of the fleet – which is more than 50 years old – is “hugely important,” Forest Service spokesman Mike Ferris said.

“We’re talking about the future of supporting wildland fire-fighting,” Ferris said.

“We recognize and we have recognized that it’s critical that we continue to work toward that replacement,” he said.

The “next generation” large air tankers were supposed to be brought into service in 2012 and 2013, but the U.S. Forest Service had to re-start the contract process after hang-ups last year.

The resubmitted proposals were due in early November, and contracts will be awarded soon, Vilsack said.

There is still a chance of problems in the process, Vilsack wrote, but he said the Forest Service has worked to reduce the risk of any more delays.

“Wildfire is a serious and ongoing threat to communities across Colorado,” Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said in an email. “Sen. Udall is glad to hear that Secretary Vilsack is committed to preventing red tape and contracting disputes from slowing the acquisition of next-generation air tankers.”

Udall, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, have all lobbied Congress to help prevent and fight wildfires.

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

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