Forest Service Reactivating Grounded Air Tanker Fleet

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Forest Service will reinstate a fleet of 25 heavy tankers and other large aircraft to join hundreds of smaller planes and helicopters in combatting what is expected to be another tough wildfire season this summer.

Officials said Thursday that despite some recent safety concerns, they have contracted to use nine P2V tankers and seven former Navy P-3 Orions to fight wildfires across the West. The large fixed-wing aircraft can drop up to 3,000 gallons of chemical fire retardant on blazes.

Seven of the P2V tankers are owned by Neptune Aviation in Missoula, Mont.

In addition, a former Douglas DC7 propeller airliner, retrofitted with fire monitoring equipment, will be used to gather data on wildfires. Eight of the military's enormous C-130 transport planes, each outfitted with firefighting gear, are being made available for use.

Those 25 larger aircraft will be deployed around the nation, along with six large helitankers and large helicopters and more than 700 smaller choppers and planes.

On April 20, a P-3 air tanker crashed in Northern California, killing all three pilots in the Lassen National Forest. The air tanker crashed during a training flight. There has been no indication the plane suffered structural failure in flight.

''Aerial firefighting is an inherently high-risk business,'' Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, said Thursday. ''Our job is to minimize that risk.''

Rey said routine inspections would being done to check ''areas of particular concern,'' including the chances of ''catastrophic metal fatigue'' among parts of the aging aircraft.

''If we find some evidence of cracking, we'll replace the part. But that alone shouldn't ground the aircraft,'' he said.

Nina Hatfield, an Interior Department deputy assistant secretary, said the contracted aircraft is of particular help in determining how each fire is managed.

Last year, the Forest Service and Interior Department terminated $30 million in contracts with private companies for 33 heavy tankers, after the National Transportation Safety Board said it could not guarantee their airworthiness. Three such planes crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members.

During the 2004 season, eight P-3s were returned to service, and three other planes were used in a limited capacity after Western lawmakers complained the large planes were needed.

Democrat Max Baucus of Montana praised the decision Thursday. ''As we stare down the barrel of what could be another bad fire year, having these planes at the ready is reassuring to all of us as Montanans,'' he said.

Greater than expected moisture in the West could delay fire season in the Northwest and Northern Rockies until July, officials forecast. Difficult fires are expected at lower elevations in southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico.