How effective are air tankers?

Aug 29, 2013 By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

Studies done over the past two decades have yet to provide data on the effectiveness of various private aircraft contracted by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior to fight wildfires in the U.S., a new federal report shows.

The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office also outlined ongoing challenges to modernizing the nation's aging and dwindling fleet of large air tankers and said the Forest Service sometimes falls short in collaborating with other agencies and private companies on aerial firefighting strategy.

The GAO recommended the agencies collect better data and improve collaboration.

Forest Service officials generally agreed with the report and have started collecting more information to help improve strategy.

"It's not tomorrow that we're going to have all of this worked out," Tom Harbour, the agency's director of fire and aviation management, said Wednesday. "We understand the complexity, but we're working on it."

The Interior Department said in its formal response to the GAO report requested by five U.S. senators that it agreed with the findings and recommendations. Interior contracts for fewer and smaller aircraft and plays a smaller role in aerial firefighting than the Forest Service.

Both agencies arrange contracts to have dozens of private aircraft fight wildfires such as the huge fire burning just outside Yosemite National Park in California.

They include 120 helicopters of various sizes, 16 large air tankers and one very large air tanker contracted by the Forest Service. Interior's firefighting aircraft include 25 small helicopters.

The biggest of the tankers, a converted DC-10 jumbo jet, was used to fight the Fairfield Fire near Sinks Canyon State Park last month.

The biggest role of the planes and choppers is to bomb water or fire-retardant slurry on and near wildfires. The aircraft also carry firefighters, equipment and provisions.

Anticipating where fires are likely to break out, pre-positioning aircraft to respond, and allocating a good mix of different aircraft against several simultaneous fires is a complex challenge face every year by the Forest Service.

Since 1995, nine studies and strategy documents by the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Interior and others have analyzed aerial firefighting in the U.S.

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