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Study touts scooper planes for fires

Study touts scooper planes for fires; forest chief differs

Jul 31, 2012 - By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- A think tank says the U.S. Forest Service should pursue a much different strategy for using airplanes to fight wildfires, one that relies more heavily on planes that scoop up water on the fly and less on air tankers that drop fire retardant chemicals and need to be reloaded on the ground at airports.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell says he agrees with many recommendations in the long-awaited report released Monday by the RAND Corp., but not that one.

"We disagree with that because we feel some of the information they used is inaccurate," Tidwell told The Associated Press.

The lead author of the report, Edward Keating, stood by the cost-comparison data, which RAND drew from recent government contracts for water scooping planes in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"We are very adamant about the validity of our scooper cost estimates and disagree strongly with Mr. Tidwell on that point," Keating said.

Right now, the Forest Service doesn't contract for any water scoopers to fight wildfires. A blueprint released in February for modernizing the aging air tanker fleet -- which right now is made up largely of 60-year-old Lockheed P-2V Neptunes, a former military plane -- mentions the possibility of using water scooper planes.

However, none of the eight planes listed in the Forest Service's Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy is a water scooper, such as the Canadair CL-215. Specifically designed for bombing water on wildfires, the amphibious plane can fly low and scoop up more than 1,400 gallons from a large body of water in just 12 seconds.

Water scoopers also aren't among the seven large air tankers being expedited to the Forest Service contract fleet this year and next under a bill President Barack Obama signed in June.

Water scoopers are used extensively in Canada, as well as by Los Angeles and San Diego counties, which every year contracts Canadian water scoopers to fight fires. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Alaska and state of Minnesota also use water scoopers, said Keating.

"These folks are universal in their praise for the vehicles," Keating said. "We think for a sizeable percentage of fires, in particular those that are relatively proximate to water sources, that scoopers can replace air tankers."

At least two-thirds of fires have occurred within 10 miles of open water that would be accessible to a water scooper, according to the RAND report.

Water typically is used differently against wildfires -- dropped directly on flames rather than close by the fire to try to slow its spread. Gallon for gallon, water is half as effective as retardant at slowing down wildfires, but a scooper can make many more drops compared to an air tanker when a fire is close to water.

The Forest Service might consider substituting a few water scoopers for water-dropping helicopters but won't contract for scoopers instead of retardant-dropping air tankers, Tidwell said.

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