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Fighting Western wildfires: Does Forest Service have enough air power? (+video)

With huge wildfires scorching the West, the US Forest Service chief says the aging and depleted fleet of air tankers is just one part of the firefighting mix. But he has secured extra aircraft for the season.

Fast-growing wildfires sweep through the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado. Travis Brecher reports.
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As large fires scorch vast tracts of land from Alaska to Colorado and Arkansas, the debate over the nation’s fire-fighting preparedness is also heating up.

The air tanker fleet tasked with the most dangerous mega-fire tasks – think dropping tons of fire-retardant into remote and steep canyons – is under particular scrutiny. Pointing to the fleet’s decade-long decline from some 44 tankers in 2002 to nine at the start of the 2012 fire season, one critic is calling the current situation an “air tanker crisis.”

However Tom Tidwell, chief of the US Forest Service, one of four federal agencies charged with tackling fires and the one responsible for deploying the air tankers anywhere in the country, maintains that the state of preparedness is good, because the air tankers are only part of the overall mix of fire-fighting resources.

Mr. Tidwell points to some 300 helicopters and small planes that are also used, noting that in the past decade, the mix has shifted, with more emphasis on the smaller craft. As a former firefighter, Tidwell says, “the personnel on the ground really appreciate the helicopters because they can go places the large planes cannot.”

Nonetheless, he notes that over the weekend, the service sealed a deal with the US military to deliver four tankers when needed. In addition, the Forest Service has assembled eight other plane contracts, including several with the Canadian government to bring the available tankers for this season to 21. Beyond that, he points to additional resources that have just been announced – a contract for seven total next-generation air tankers, three to be delivered by the end of this year.

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