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USFS air tanker numbers drop as fire hazard increases

L.A. County fire official says other sources of retardant-dropping aircraft are tapped

Posted: May 5, 2014 6:34 p.m.
Updated: May 5, 2014 6:34 p.m.

With a vast swath of the West primed for wildfires, federal foresters are preparing for the worst with a budget that might run dry and a fleet of air tankers that in some cases aren’t ready for takeoff.

A combination of extended drought, warming weather and an abundance of withered trees and grasses have created ideal conditions for fire — more than 22 million acres were blackened by wildfires from 2011-2013, primarily across the West.

“It looks like it’s going to be a serious enough season to where we run out of money again,” said Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service.

“I’m really concerned, there is no question,” Harbour said during an interview with The Associated Press. “I think we are going to have a lot of fire.”

When it comes to fighting brush fires in the Santa Clarita Valley, “The air tankers are one tool in our arsenal,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Anthony Akins.

But, he said, “aircraft do not put out fires. Boots on the ground is what puts fires out.”

In the event of a major fire, Akins said, the county calls on a number of agencies that provide fire-fighting aircraft — including the U.S. military and the Canadian government.

A “multitude of issues” determine the federal government’s decisions to make air tankers available to agencies, he noted.

The U.S. Forest Service, meanwhile, is doing what it can to prepare for wildfire season by burning sections of forest in high-risk areas to remove dead or dry vegetation that could fuel a fire. In another step, crews will launch a major forest-thinning project on Lake Tahoe’s north shore.

In no place is the situation more worrisome than in California, where several years of stingy rainfall have turned forests and scrub into matchsticks and tens of thousands of homes are perched along fire-prone areas.

Firefighters battled a blaze in the mountains east of Los Angeles last week, where temperatures neared triple digits. And states from New Mexico through southern Oregon have been left sere by a lack of rain and snow.

But even as fire risk has increased in recent years, the number of large air tankers dropped.

About a decade ago the Forest Service had more than 40 of the big tankers at its disposal — the draft horses of firefighting aircraft that can dump thousands of gallons of flame-snuffing retardant in a single swoop, far more than a helicopter.

According to federal analysts, the fleet hit a low of eight aircraft at one point last year, depleted by age and concerns over the ability of the planes, in some cases flying since the dawn of the Cold War, to stay in the sky.

Signal Staff Writer Jim Holt contributed to this report.




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