Grounding air tankers concerns Nevada agencies
CARSON CITY – The grounding of the nation’s fleet of aging air tankers has federal and state officials in Nevada worried now that the fire season has started.
“We’re not panicking, but it’s a problem,” said Steven Robinson, Gov. Kenny Guinn’s adviser on wildlife, conservation and rural issues, in discussing the grounding of 33 contract air tankers.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department terminated contracts on Monday with private companies that operated the fixed-wing planes after the National Transportation Safety Board said their airworthiness couldn’t be assured.
“What we’ll look to as alternatives to those heavy tankers will be the National Guard Chinook helicopters, the big ships that can deliver heavy retardant loads,” said Robinson, who until Friday was the state forester. “And then we have our two (smaller) Nevada Division of Forestry helicopters.”
At the Lake Tahoe Basin, the most noticeable difference will be that people will likely see more helicopters flying over and dipping buckets into the lake in the event of a forest fire, said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service main office in Sacramento.
Air tankers based out of Minden and Chico are the ones most commonly seen fighting fires in the basin, including ones used during the July 3, 2002, Gondola fire near Stateline.
Because of the grounding, Forest Service officials in California will contract to add 11 more helicopters to its fleet, amounting to at least 30 by June. The Forest Service has yet to determine how much it will cost to contract the helicopters or how many will be positioned near the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“No matter what the cost is, the value of what we protect is priceless. There is no price to be put on the scenic vistas at Tahoe and the homes and businesses there. Not only do they have high financial worth but also great emotional worth as well,” Mathes said.
The federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have smaller, single-engine tanker planes, Robinson said, adding he’s hopeful that several of those can be assigned to Nevada fire duty as needed.
On the California side, the Forest Service will work with the California Department of Forestry which does have a fleet of air tankers not affected by the order. Nevada also has a firefighting compact with CDF.
The NTSB order came after a scathing report last year calling for major changes in the contract air tanker fleet.
Forest Service officials in California are pleased with the decision to ground the aging air tankers, many of which were upwards of 50 years old. While it is more expensive to operate helicopters, they are more effective than air tankers because of their ability to fly directly over the top of fires to directly spread retardant or water on flames.
“Helicopters have better canopy penetration. The water or retardant is dropped straight down and that tends to get through the forest’s leafy canopy and to the fire itself better than retardant that comes in at an angle from an air taker,” Mathes said.
Also, the turnaround time for helicopters is much greater. Air tankers must return and land at airstrips and have retardant pumped back into tanks and then fly back to the fire.
“With a helicopter all it has to do is fly over the lake, dip the bucket into water and go straight back to the fire. There is far less time between drops of water,” Mathes said.
Still, Nevada officials are more skeptical.
“This is a major loss. It’s a real hazardous situation not having the tankers,” said Bill Pierce, aviation officer for the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest Service office in Reno. “Until we can get some kind of updated fleet, we’re putting a lot of folks at risk.”
“We’re hurting as far as the aerial fire suppression goes,” said Pierce. “We have helicopters, but we’re going to be at a drawdown level with those too. … Hopefully we won’t get a lot of lightning.”
A 100-acre wildfire shut down Interstate 80 just west of Reno on Friday, burning along both sides of the road. The blaze was contained on Saturday, but a Forest Service spokesman said it showed the fire season was off to an early start.
Pierce and Robinson said the grounded air tankers are the type especially useful in dumping retardant in steep, hard-to-access areas on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, on the California-Nevada border.
The big tankers, some of which can haul and drop as much as 2,500 gallons of fire-retardant slurry on a blaze, make up less than 10 percent of the federal government’s aerial firefighting fleet, which also includes more than 400 helicopters, smaller single-engine tankers, and lead planes.
But the big bombers have come to symbolize to the public that a wildfire is being fought vigorously.
Three such planes crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members. That included a Lockheed C-130A that lost both wings in flight in Walker, Calif., in 2002 killing the crew of three. The NTSB said fatigue cracks were found in the wings of the 46-year-old plane – and there were similar problems in an aging P4Y2 that broke up and crashed in fighting a Colorado fire a month later, killing its two-man crew.
– Tribune city editor Jeff Munson contributed to this report.