A group of Western senators says the U.S. Forest Service may not be moving quickly enough to build up and replace the fleet of aging planes that drop fire retardant on wildfires.
The senators asked the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday to evaluate whether the Forest Service has done a good job of analyzing the types and numbers of aircraft needed, the cheapest way to get them, new technologies, and where the planes will be based.
"Concerns have increasingly been raised that the federal agencies responsible for responding to wildland fires — the Forest Service and four agencies in the Department of Interior — do not have the appropriate number and mix of aircraft that will be needed for wildland fire suppression operations," said the letter signed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The Forest Service did not immediately provide someone to comment on the senators' request.
The agency hires a mix of large and small airplanes and helicopters each year to fight wildfires. They are generally privately owned and work under contract.
Retardant dropped from planes is typically used to bolster a line cut by firefighters on the edge of a fire, and water dropped from helicopters is usually used to cool hotspots within a fire.
The current fleet is made up of Lockheed P-2Vs, anti-submarine patrol planes dating to the 1950s that have been modified with jets to supplement the piston engines. More than half are due to retire in 10 years.
The number of large aircraft has steadily dwindled since 2004, when the Forest Service grounded 33 air tankers after a number of high-profile crashes. Today there are just 11 that get spread around the country based on fires and fire danger. Smaller single-engine crop-dusters converted to carry retardant are largely used on range fires.
Last month, the Forest Service adopted a new strategy for replacing the fleet with newer, faster and more cost-effective planes.
Jim Hubbard, deputy chief of the Forest Service for state and private forestry, said at the time that the government was looking for the best value and might end up owning some planes. But the choices would depend on how much money was available and what contractors could do.
The strategy said the next generation of large air tankers should carry turbine engines, rather than piston engines, to make them faster, more fuel-efficient and more reliable.
Wyden complained that the Forest Service's strategy is woefully lacking in specifics that would allow comparisons of different types and costs of aircraft so choices can be made. Meanwhile, a "perfect storm" is shaping up of dry weather and thick stands of forests that have not been thinned.
"Trying to get these tankers and the fleet ready for serious fire seasons seems to be almost the longest running battle since the Trojan war," he said. "The West doesn't have the luxury of just sitting around while everything goes up in smoke."
This week, air tankers joined the battle against a wildfire burning across 7 square miles outside Denver. A couple were found dead in a home destroyed by the blaze, and a woman was missing. Twenty-eight homes burned.
The Forest Service had originally planned to solicit bids for large air tankers in the middle of last year, but that was delayed until the end of January, said Dick Hatton, president and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC, in Victorville, Calif. The company operates a DC-10 jumbo jet modified to drop 11,600-gallon loads of retardant and has had a call-when-needed contract with the Forest Service.
A handful of contractors, including 10 Tanker, submitted bids by the Feb. 15 deadline, and awards are expected in the next month or so, Hatton said.
The Forest Service is also taking bids for a study to determine how many and what types of aircraft it will need to fight wildfires. Bids are due May 15, according to the federal contracts website, http://FedBizOpps.gov .