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Know the West

Debate rages over firefighting airplanes



Just as fire season arrived in the West, the federal government touched off a blaze of controversy. In May, citing safety concerns, the Interior Department and the Forest Service canceled their contracts for 33 privately owned large air tankers.

The decision followed a report from the National Transportation Safety Board, which detailed three plane crashes in the last ten years that claimed eight crewmembers’ lives. The planes’ worn-out wings had cracked during flight, and the report concluded that "no effective method currently exists to ensure continuing airworthiness" of the aircraft, many of which are recycled military planes from the 1940s and ’50s.

But the decision to ground the fleet drew furious criticism from politicians bracing for a dangerous, drought-fueled fire season.

In a letter, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, D, blasted U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversees the Forest Service, for not developing a plan for safety inspections immediately after two tankers crashed in the summer of 2002. In June, the Forest Service announced it would rent 100 alternative aircraft — including helicopters and single-engine planes — at a cost of $66 million.

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, R, who chairs the House Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee, asked the Federal Aviation Administration to quickly develop an inspection system so air tankers deemed airworthy could be used this summer.

Meanwhile, the grounded air tankers are available for hire elsewhere; Oregon’s Department of Forestry took advantage of the current glut to hire some to fight fires on state lands this summer.