Canadian Air Tractors Fill In For Grounded Tankers

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) -- The Idaho Department of Lands has contracted three small airtankers to fight wildfires in northern Idaho this summer.

Officials are hoping the smaller, more agile planes will supress fire as well as the larger airtankers that were essentially banned from firefighting by the government earlier this year.

The government canceled all 33 of its heavy air tanker contracts in May over safety concerns after two of the big planes broke apart in midair over Colorado and California in 2002, killing those aboard. Only a handful of the large air tankers have been reinstated since, leaving land agencies looking for different ways to battle wildfires.

There is no longer a large air tanker stationed at the Coeur d'Alene Airport. Instead, the Idaho Department of Lands on Tuesday brought in three smaller aerial tankers from the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

The pilots of the Air Tractor-802f planes have been flying around the region to familiarize themselves with the terrain.

Each plane carries 800 gallons of retardant _ about one-third the amount carried in a large tanker.

The single-engine Air Tractors are capable of flying lower and slower than the large air tankers, said Department of Lands fire and fuels program manager Bob Burke, making them more accurate and potentially more effective.

``Our intent here is to hit every fire very quickly, very hard,'' Burke said. ``They're the best opportunity we have.''

Each of the smaller tankers cost $3,400 per day, plus $600 an hour during flight. They will be stationed in Coeur d'Alene for at least two months, along with three firefighting helicopters.

The state will pay for most of the costs, though if the planes are used to fight fires on federal land, the Forest Service will chip in.

Burke said the price was cheap compared with the cost of bringing in additional firefighters and resources to fight a large wildfire.

Last year, a 3,600-acre wildfire near Bonners Ferry cost taxpayers about $4.5 million.

``If we can prevent one large fire, then we've paid for our fleet,'' Burke said.

Two more single-engine air tankers will be stationed in McCall, and two in Grangeville. Satellite bases are being set up for the planes at airports in Sandpoint, St. Maries and Shoshone County.

Eric Bradley, a pilot with the Coeur d'Alene squadron, said the small planes offer cruising speeds of around 175 mph, air-conditioned cockpits and unrivaled views of the forest below.

Bradley said the planes are not designed to extinguish a forest fire. Instead, they slow its advance.

``With early detection and quick response, we'll catch them before they become national news the next night,'' Bradley said.