This season, two of the Forest Service's contracted planes were lost, one to a crash that claimed two lives in June, the other to a crash landing that left the craft unusuable. Sunday’s crash, which killed four members of the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Expeditionary Wing and injured two others, happened only days after the 145th was called in.
Last month, President Obama expedited an order for three 1980s-era tankers, which will now come online in August, as the wildfire season winds down. Four more planes will be added in the next two years. But Mr. Gabbert calls this a "Band-Aid" solution.
The way he sees it, the Forest Service allowed itself to slide into a bad situation without having a plan to get out of it. The crisis largely took shape in 2002, when a firefighting C-130 literally lost its wings and crashed while fighting wildfires in California. That set off a new safety regimen, which was perhaps needed, but decimated the overall fleet. Few contractors were willing or able to meet the government's new standards for the price offered.
Just last year, President Obama cancelled the contract of one contractor that supplied eight air tankers, citing maintenance noncompliance. Currently, only two contractors are supplying the nine tankers that are for the Forest Service's exclusive use. (In addition to the seven Air Force C-130s, the Forest Service can also call upon three additional "emergency" contract planes, but has not yet done so this year.)