Other Assets Earmarked for Black Hills, South Dakota Fires

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) -- Although a fleet of heavy air tankers won't be available in the foreseeable future, an official with the Black Hills National Forest said other assets will be available to fight fires in the Black Hills.

Citing safety concerns with the aging planes, the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department on May 10 indefinitely grounded 33 airplanes that had been used to drop fire retardants on wildfires.

Dean Burger, fire management officer for the Black Hills National Forest, told the Pennington County Commission on Tuesday that discussion about the heavy air tankers is going on at the Washington, D.C., level and that Congress has gotten involved.

Burger said a contract has been awarded to a private corporation to inspect the fleet of heavy air tankers to certify the planes' airworthiness.

``As far as a timeline of when these air tankers will be in the air, I have nothing to tell you other than there's a lot of pressure at the top about it,'' Burger said. ``Congress is actively involved in trying to get something worked out.''

Firefighter safety is the top priority for federal agencies, Burger said, and the mandate is to protect firefighters whether they are in the air or on the ground.

Federal agencies are doing everything they can to increase the number of other aviation assets available for fire suppression needs across the country, he said.

Some examples Burger cited include five medium-sized helicopters under contract, one of which will be placed in the Black Hills.

Additionally, heavy helicopters will be available for urban interface fires, which Burger said are probably as effective in protecting structures due to their accuracy, and there will be another single-engine air tanker placed in the Black Hills.

``They're not the same tool as the heavy air tanker; they don't carry the same payload, but they are an additional asset,'' Burger said.

Tactics and strategies will have to change a little bit without the heavy air tanker, but Burger said the job of fighting fires will still get done.

``We think we're putting some resources in place, other resources in the tool box, that are going to make us just as successful as far as our local suppression response,'' he said.