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The risky business of fighting fire in the West

  The 2004 fire season has not yet truly begun in the Rocky Mountain West, and already three fire-fighting pilots have died in crashes. While investigations into the causes of the accidents are under way, the U.S. Forest Service finds itself crushed between a rock and a hot place.

On May 11, with aerial tanker-training in full swing, top-ranking administrators in the Forest Service pulled the rug out from under the agency's tanker contractors and regional fire managers. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth declared all large tanker contracts null and void, leaving a gaping hole in the bag of tools needed to fight wildland fires.

The impetus behind his decision was a horrifying video accompanied by a National Transportation Safety Board report on the catastrophic failure of wings on two aerial tankers that crashed in 2002. All crew members aboard the planes died. The tankers involved in the accidents were both owned by Hawkins and Powers of Wyoming, but safety board officials recommended against using any of the available U.S. fleet. The jury is still out on whether structural failure is imminent on other models of aircraft still in use by other contractors. An avalanche of documentation, including maintenance procedures and individual aircraft history, has been submitted to DynCorp, an aircraft contractor that has agreed to review the airworthiness of the large tanker fleet on a plane-by-plane basis.

In the meantime, regional Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management aviation managers are scrambling to find equipment to replace the large tankers, because fires are beginning to blaze in the drought-stricken West. Dozens of contractors with little or no experience in applying fire retardant from agricultural spray planes known as SEATs — Single Engine Air Tankers — are hiring pilots who know how to spray on calm summer days, but not necessarily how to douse infernos from the air. Unfortunately, with a single pilot on board a SEAT, there is no one along to coach a neophyte through the tricky business of delivering a payload that strains the aircraft's capacity to perform in conditions from Hell.

At a recent fire aviation safety briefing for fire patrol pilots, the safety briefer warned, "There's going to be a lot of metal flying around out there over fires this year, with a lot of inexperienced pilots (at the controls.) Keep your eyes open."

A good friend of mine was the most recent casualty in the war on wildfire. He was a conscientious, safe pilot; a flight instructor with 20,000 hours in small aircraft, including many hours of aerial agricultural-application flight; a caring man no doubt distressed at the sight of the fire he was working, licking at the edges of a "wildland interface" subdivision.

No one yet knows what went wrong. He delivered his load of retardant, and the plane plummeted to the ground, sending his spirit out of this world in the smoke rising from a mass of crumpled metal. The video was just as horrifying and gut-wrenching to watch as the 2002 crash footage shared by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Perhaps there was a mechanical problem with the airplane, operating at an altitude and under stresses higher than those it was designed for. My friend might have made a fatal error in judgment, losing sight of a safe route away from the drop area. Investigators sifting through the wreckage for clues may never uncover the cause.

Fighting fire is always risky. Firefighters die on the ground and in the air every year. Few will admit to any vulnerability. They continue to battle to save houses that sprout up by the thousands in areas of high risk for forest fires.

Agencies responsible for protecting those houses are faced with difficult decisions, both politically and practically. But no matter what safety precautions are preached by fire specialists, firefighters will continue to gamble with their lives. By eliminating an important weapon from the battlefield kit, I hope the Washington, D.C., decision-makers have not sacrificed lives in the effort to save others from an unknown risk.

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a flight instructor and naturalist in Hamilton, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].