Oregon Seeks Air Tankers to Fill Federal Gap

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- The Oregon state forester has declared a state of emergency over the shortage of large air tankers and is looking for more planes to contract on its own to make up for planes whose federal contracts were canceled over safety issues.

The Oregon Department of Forest said Monday it is looking for two air tankers to be available as early as July 1 in addition to two tankers and two lead planes due to arrive Aug. 1 after they have completed work in Alaska.

``Aircraft are integral to our aggressive firefighting strategy,'' said Bill Lafferty, director of fire protection for the department, said in a statement.

State Forester Marvin Brown declared an emergency last week due to the shortage of air tankers and expectations of an above-average fire season this year.

With unseasonably warm temperatures in March and April, the potential loss of heavy air tankers contracted by the federal government for safety reasons and a years-long drought continuing, Western states are grimly facing the possibility of another devastating fire season.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has responsibility for fighting fires on 16 million acres of state, private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management forest and considers air tankers a crucial tool for stopping or slowing fires while they are still small.

Six air tankers had been contracted to be based in Redmond and Klamath Falls, with a fire retardant loading station in Medford, until the contracts were canceled. Another tanker was to be based in Moses Lake, Wash.

Earlier this month, the Forest Service and Interior Department canceled $30 million in contracts for 33 air tankers, citing safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people. Officials had said they would rely on military planes and other aircraft to fill the void.

Under a federal law, the Forest Service and BLM, not the National Transportation Safety Board nor the Federal Aviation Administration, are responsible for certifying that planes used for public purposes are safe. The Forest Service has said it lacks the expertise to ensure privately owned tankers, some of which are up to 60 years old, are safe to fly.

Western lawmakers and governors have mounted a campaign to get at least some of the grounded tankers back into operation.

The Alaska Fire Service has asked for three smaller aircraft to replace the two large tankers lost when the federal government canceled their contracts earlier this month.