As wildfires rage, modern tanker planes sought

By Mead Gruver

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 14 2012 9:39 p.m. MDT

With drought and what has become a yearlong wildfire season, some experts insist as many as 50 planes, large and small, are needed nationwide, said Bill Gabbert, a wildfire blogger, veteran firefighter and owner of the Wildfiretoday.com website.

"You need to have air tankers responding within 25 or 30 minutes to new fires so they can slow them down quickly so that firefighters on the ground can put them out," Gabbert said. "But we no longer have that capability. So initial attack by aerial resources is a quaint memory."

The result: More small fires that become mega-fires and are far more expensive to fight than if they'd been snuffed out early, he said.

"Sure, it's expensive to contract for air tankers. But it's more expensive to pay the tens of millions of dollars when a few of those fires become very large," Gabbert said.

Tragedy got the U.S. tanker plane fleet to its current state.

The fleet numbered 44 planes a decade ago. A series of high-profile crashes, including wings that fell off a privately-owned C-130 and a 1940s-era PB4Y-2 Privateer in midflight, caused the Forest Service to ground 33 air tankers in 2004.

The Lockheed P2Vs, with eight still in the firefighting fleet, also have a history of fatalities. A P2V crashed in Utah last week, killing two pilots. Since 1990, the Cold War-era submarine attack planes have crashed at least seven times, killing 16.

Across the West:

— Arizona: A 480-acre wildfire near the Grand Canyon was 70 percent contained. A 2,860-acre fire and a 200-acre fire near Superior east of Phoenix were 50 percent contained.

— Colorado: The 78-square-mile High Park fire west of Fort Collins was 10 percent contained. Gov. John Hickenlooper banned open burning and private use of fireworks. Authorities determined that six small wildfires near the Breckenridge Nordic Ski Center were intentionally set.

— New Mexico: The Little Bear fire, which has scorched 58 square miles and destroyed at least 224 homes in the Sierra Blanca range near Ruidoso, has been 40 percent contained but firefighting officials expressed concern about continued dry and sunny conditions.

— Washington: A wildfire burned about 1,500 acres of sagebrush and grass between Othello and Royal City in south-central Washington.

Follow Mead Gruver at twitter.com/meadgruver

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