U.S. Firefighting Fleet Has Some Old, Some Borrowed

By Tom Bacon

A new report from a federal government watchdog agency concludes that the nation's aerial firefighting fleet is a mishmash of old, borrowed and sometimes ill-suited aircraft, largely because the two biggest firefighting agencies don't talk to each other. 

The Government Accountability Office told Oregon Senator Ron Wyden two days ago that the U-S Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have conducted nine major efforts since 1995 to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need. But the auditors found to their amazement that not one of the studies or strategy documents had information about the performance and effectiveness of the firefighting aircraft.

In reviewing the bureaucratic inertia, the auditors found many agency officials and stakeholders who were worried about the lack of collaboration between the two big federal agencies, but they were not in the top tier of management and could do nothing about it.

The GAO report concluded that large air tankers able to carry at least 18-hundred gallons of retardant are key resources in firefighting. But the number of large air tankers available to fly under federal contract has shrunk from 44 just a decade ago to only 8 this year. That's because most of the airplanes are old - more than 50 years old on average - and some have literally fallen apart in the air. Three large air tankers crashed last year alone.

Another complication - the Forest Service plan to buy new large air tankers was shot down by the White House Office of Management and Budget because of spending restrictions. The GAO auditors told Wyden that the Forest Service and the Interior Departemnt must cooperate to find aircraft that will do the best job and be the most cost-effective.

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