Bigger, Faster Air Tankers Help Forest Service Tackle Wildfires The agency's fleet of planes shrank dramatically in the early 2000s, falling from 40 air tankers to nine. Now, the addition of new airplanes is both expanding and modernizing the firefighting fleet.
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Bigger, Faster Air Tankers Help Forest Service Tackle Wildfires

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Bigger, Faster Air Tankers Help Forest Service Tackle Wildfires

Bigger, Faster Air Tankers Help Forest Service Tackle Wildfires

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're reporting this morning on a group that never hopes to make news - firefighters. If a forest fire is contained quickly it might mean lives were saved, we might never read or hear about it. And in some cases it may be because an air tanker was deployed. This is a plane designed to drop retardant on forest fires. The U.S. Forest Service is about to get its hands on a new generation of air tankers, as Scott Graf of Boise State Public Radio reports.

SCOTT GRAF, BYLINE: Bill Hahnenburg admits he was skeptical of how helpful a next-generation of air tanker would be in fighting Western wild fires. That was until August 2012 when Hahnenburg was leading the fight against a new fire burning in the Idaho mountains. He says if fighters couldn't get a handle on it quickly there was a chance it would be unusually destructive.

BILL HAHNENBURG: There was a high likelihood we would've been managing that fire for rather than a few more days probably a few more weeks.

GRAF: Hahnenburg is an incident commander with the Forest Service. He says, the Springs fire was at risk of jumping over a mountain and burning into two small towns. Hahnenburg had just a few hours to get fire retardant on the ground.

HAHNENBURG: At that point we're looking for the biggest, heaviest hammer we can bring to the table.

GRAF: That hammer was sitting at the Boise airport, about 40 miles away. It was a giant DC-10 air tanker the government had just hired to fight such fires. Two retardant drops later, the fire was boxed in and ground crews began to get the upper hand. It turned out to be sort of a nonevent.

SCOTT FISHER: Once an air tanker has contained that fire we never see that because it doesn't show up on the news.

GRAF: Scott Fisher oversaw the Forest Service's air tanker program until his retirement this summer. The DC-10 used on the Springs fire was part of the agency's effort to grow and modernize the tanker fleet. See, in 2000 the government had more than 40 air tankers on contract, but many were built during World War II and the Cold War. And two crashes of so-called legacy air tankers led many to be parked for good. The number of air tankers would later fall to just nine. And Fisher says, that was too low.

FISHER: Not having sufficient resources cause the system to be stretched. And certainly because of that there were fires that we just did not get to.

GRAF: So the government issued a call to contractors for what's known as next-generation air tankers. The Forest Service required they be jet powered, able to carry at least 3,000 gallons of retardant and capable of flying at a speed of 300 knots.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR TANKER FLYING)

GRAF: The same DC-10 that flew over Idaho Springs fire two years ago has been back in the state this summer. Les Dixon manages the Boise air tanker base where the jumbo jet gets filled with more than 11,000 gallons of fire retardant.

LES DIXON: So that's the equivalent of about three and a half large air tankers combined. You got one aircraft or you're working four air craft. So risk management goes down, you don't have as many aircraft working.

GRAF: The DC-10 is the largest of the new planes and perhaps best symbolizes the government's effort to upgrade. New Mexico based Ten Tanker Air has built three of the jets for the Forest Service and CEO Rick Hatton says, the new planes are just better.

RICK HATTON: I don't know an incident commander who has ever run a fire and had a load of retardant come and say, you got here too soon and you brought too much. It's always the opposite.

GRAF: These jets are only one piece of the Forest Service's firefighting toolkit. But Bill Hahnenburg, the fire manager who first used the DC-10 in Idaho two summers ago, says the new planes are helping firefighters get an upper hand early.

HAHNENBURG: Boxing it in when it's smaller is a whole lot easier when it's bigger and gets established in some difficult fuel and difficult terrain.

GRAF: The government hopes to have a roster of about 28 air tankers, a goal likely to be reached in the next two or three years. For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Boise.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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