RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - An air tanker will be based in Rapid
City during the summer fire season although it might not spend much
time in the state, depending on demands elsewhere.
The Lockheed P2V-7 Neptune is scheduled for Rapid City starting
in July, said John Twiss, Black Hills National Forest supervisor.
The twin-engine plane can carry 2,450 gallons of retardant.
Its arrival comes despite cutbacks in large firefighting
aircraft across the nation.
The nation's air tanker fleet will be moved around more this
year to stand by in areas with the highest fire danger, said Twiss.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, will relocate
the planes as needed, he said.
The planes will be used primarily for initial attack on fires
and less in extended firefighting, said Rose Davis of the NIFC.
"The mind-set in the past was that if you have a tanker base,
you'll get your airplane," Davis said. "This year, we've assigned
tankers to a tanker base just as a place to start."
Helicopters will get more use for extended attacks, another NIFC
official said.
Eleven aircraft that were used last year are no longer
available. A C-130 and a PB4Y-2 crashed fighting fires a year ago,
killing their crews. The U.S. Forest Service grounded the remaining
nine C-130As and PB4Y-2s for firefighting duty after a bad safety
report.
That will leave a fleet of 32 large air tankers if they all pass
safety inspections put in place after the crashes. None of the
Neptune P2Vs have been inspected yet, said Davis.
Federal and state officials have complained that competition
could be intense for the remaining large air tankers if several
large fires burn simultaneously.
"It doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out that
somebody who would have gotten an air tanker on their fire won't
this year if there are the same number of fires," said Dean
Berger, a fire management officer for the Black Hills National
Forest.
Davis said, however, that about eight military firefighting
planes also will be available this year, including two at Cheyenne,
Wyo., and two at Colorado Springs, Colo. Those Air National Guard
planes are newer model C-130s, said Davis.
The South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division again will
depend on single-engine air tankers, said Steve Hasenohrl,
assistant chief for administration.
The state plans to have two based at Custer State Park that can
move to remote bases. The state also hopes to have a single-engine
air tanker at Pierre, said Hasenohrl.
The planes can drop about 600 gallons of water or water and foam
mix, he said.
Not counting the larger tankers, the Black Hills National Forest
will have essentially the same firefighting resources it has always
had, said Berger.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)