It has been a decade of unrelenting wildfires in a vicious cycle of drought. Millions of acres burned. Thousands of homes destroyed. Some 200 firefighters dead.
With the fire now raging north of San Francisco, and the fire that raged through Yosemite National Park two weeks ago, this year may become the worst of all, according to the federal official in charge of fighting the fires, Chief Tom Tidwell of the U.S. Forest Service.
“We’re having just tremendous problems being able to control, being able to suppress the fires we’re having this year,” Tidwell said.
And for the firefighters on the ground, including the so-called smoke jumpers and hot shots, the ability to call in reinforcement from the air has never been more critical.
Yet an ABC News investigation has found that even as the number of forest fires has dramatically increased over the last decade, officials in Washington have allowed the fleet of large firefighting tankers to dramatically decrease by 75 percent from the 44 planes available just a decade ago. Today, only 11 air tankers are available.
Firefighting officials said that puts lives at risk.
The impact of the diminished fleet and the value of those aircraft was clear in one of this year’s big fires, the Mountain Ridge fire near Palm Springs, Calif.
Spotter planes overhead identify the target, the hot spots. And then they guide in the air tankers, flying low through smoke and rough terrain, to drop the load of fire retardant chemicals and set up a kind of no-burn zone to slow or stop the flames from spreading.
The planes hitting the Mountain Ridge fire were flying out of a nearby air base where ABC News saw firsthand another huge problem. Of the few planes still flying, some of the aircraft are 50 years old or older. They are military submarine chasers going back to the Korean War, like museum pieces still on active duty.
But it’s no secret to the Forest Service, which has been on notice since a 2002 report that its aircraft were badly aging and need to be replaced.
“We’ve been moving forward with using the aircraft that we had,” said Tidwell.
And in some cases that has led to more tragedy. The wings of one aged firefighting plane literally tore off. Last year, two more firefighting planes crashed.
As a safety precaution, more aircraft have been grounded, but were never replaced on a permanent basis.
The chief of the California wildfire forces wrote to Chief Tidwell at the Forest Service last year, saying the diminished federal fleet “risks large fires that threaten lives and natural resources.”
“We moved forward to acquire additional aircraft,” said Tidwell.
Tidwell said the Forest Service can also use military cargo planes when needed and he blamed the federal contracting process. But he would not answer why it has taken so long, more than a decade, to replenish the depleted air fleet.
Tidwell said they have two next-generation planes. But it’s still nowhere near enough, according to state firefighting officials.
Including those in Arizona, who could not get the air tankers they wanted on the day 19 hotshot firefighters died in the town of Yarnell this summer.
“There was six air tankers ordered,” said Jim Paxon of the Arizona State Forestry Division. “Air tankers are a rare commodity in today’s fire world. We got one committed, but he didn’t get here.”
That one was a Korean War vintage plane which had engine problems and had to return to its base in California.
So there were no large air tankers en route when the Yarnell fire took off as the winds changed direction and increased in speed. The 19 hotshots were trapped as the flames raced toward them, with nothing in the fire’s way.
The badly burned bodies were discovered a short time later.
Darrell Willis, the division chief of the Prescott Fire Department, said he still wonders, although it’s not precisely clear, if the men would have survived had any of the requested large air tankers made it to the fire.
“It may have bought them 5 minutes,” said Willis. “It may have bought them 10 minutes to get to a little safer place than where they were. If they’d had 10 more minutes, they could have made it. That crew was totally fit. There’s no question in my mind that they would’ve made it.”
The final investigative report on the Yarnell fire is still being worked on, and no one may ever know if the tankers would have made a difference.
“On any given day when we get hundreds of fires started, we will never have enough aircraft for every single fire,” said Tidwell. “So there always has to be priorities set.”
But Yarnell did not become a priority until after the firefighters died.
And there simply were not enough air tankers to spare before that in the fleet that officials in Washington have allowed to shrink to one-fourth its size from a decade ago.
The Forest Service said it has a plan for a brand new fleet of firefighting aircraft, but that neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations, nor Congress would come up with the money for what firefighters in the field say is the extremely urgent need.