Governors concerned about grounded tankers
MINDEN – Governors from five Western states meet this week with federal representatives to discuss the recent grounding of 33 heavy air tankers they believe could jeopardize firefighting efforts during this season.
That decision was prompted by completion of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the deadly 2002 season when several firefighters died in airplane accidents.
The governors will meet with officials from the Interior Department, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Christie Kalkowski of the U.S. Forest Service said the NTSB investigation, released April 23, looked into the June 18, 2002, crash in Walker, Calif., when the wings literally came off a C130 plane piloted by Gardnerville resident Steve Wass, 42.
Wass and crew members Craig LaBare, 36, of Loomis, Calif., and Michael H. Davis, 59, of Bakersfield, Calif., died while fighting the Cannon fire. Later that year, on Oct. 3, Minden Air Corp. employees, pilot captain Carl Dolbeare, 54, of Chandler, Ariz., and co-pilot John Attardo, 51, of Fort Collins, Colo., were killed, when their P2V air tanker crashed in Southern California while they were assisting at a fire in Arizona.
Kalkowski said the NTSB concluded in its report to the Secretary of Agriculture, who oversees the Interior Department, that fatigue fractures contributed to the downing of the Wass flight.
“It was apparent that no effective mechanism exists to (ensure) continuing airworthiness of these older aircraft,” she said. “The average age of the (33 grounded tankers) is 48.”
She said contractors such as Minden Air Corp. are the primary responsible party for the safety of operations.
“Although the Interior Department and Forest Service attempted to get requirements in the contracts, the NTSB report said that was not adequate,” Kalkowski said. “Very simply, there is not adequate data of the flight history of these planes, and we especially do not know what stress the aircraft have encountered through firefighting.
“If you buy a car and don’t know there has been a crash or if it has been tweaked, there is no 100 percent, fool-proof way to ensure they are a safe option.”
There are six private companies that are affected by the U.S. Forest Service’s decision last week to break off contracts with them for use of their older-model air tanker craft. They are banding together to fight the edict handed down when contracts were terminated.
“There is nothing that brings you together like a good, common threat,” said Len Parker, owner of Minden Air Corp. at the Minden-Tahoe Airport. “We are working on all the fronts as we can.”
He insists the air tankers are an integral part of firefighting in the West. Parker said statistics show it is clear that if air tankers are not in use, it could result in more lives lost.
“For us, it is not an airworthiness issue,” he said. “We are in compliance with all findings. This is a political change in the issue and it will take popular pressure to resolve it.
“We are facing one of the worst fire seasons in history.”
Parker is worried that other methods for firefighting – aerial efforts, helicopters, teams of firefighters called Hot Shots – could also be grounded.
“The only people who can ground an airplane is the FAA and they say there is no cause in compliance (measures),” he said. “We’ve got a big problem now and will see an even bigger one this summer.”
Kalkowski said the Forest Service and BLM will have to form a new game plan for fire season.
“Of course, the timing is very challenging but every state in the West is subject to wildland fire. It’s part of the Western landscape,” she said. “The state, land management agencies, cities and counties are getting together to try and figure out a strategic place for our resources, personnel, fire engines and aircraft to effectively fight fire.”
Kalkowski said the Forest Service will continue to use single engine, crop duster planes for firefighting.
“They can drop 980 gallons (of retardant),” she said. “It does pale in comparison to the 3,000 gallons the air tankers can drop. But when you consider that we group two or three (single engine planes) together so we are able to drop almost that much.”
Kalkowski is optimistic it will all work out.
“Conservatively, we are four weeks ahead of the normal fire season,” she said, adding that fire specialists are monitoring areas that are prone to fire fuels, such as thick growth, sage and brush.
“Fire just runs. It spreads very quickly,” she said. “We are looking all around the state and determining where to use heavy helicopters and where we can’t.
“We use plans that will keep evolving. It is done in a logical, methodological (way). Our plans are thought-out well in advance.”