Lawmakers Want Firefighter Planes Back Up

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lawmakers said Thursday they'll try to get grounded air tankers back in the air to fight wildfires. ``I don't think we have an adequate substitute out there,'' Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said at a hearing of the House Resources subcommittee on forests.

DeFazio and other lawmakers harshly denounced the government's decision to ground the 33-tanker fleet this week, just as the fire season had begun. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., called it ``a knee-jerk reaction.''

Officials with the Forest Service and Interior Department testified they had no choice after the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the airworthiness of the big fixed-wing aircraft could not be ensured.

One problem is the Federal Aviation Administration lacks the authority to inspect the former military tankers and certify them as airworthy for firefighting because the FAA deals with civilian - not government - flights. The Forest Service and the Interior Department are not equipped to carry out such inspections, officials said.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., pledged to meet Tuesday with the head of the FAA to resolve the problem. The FAA does inspect and certify many of the same aircraft for nongovernment purposes.

``I think we've discovered we have a law we have to fix,'' Walden said.

Federal officials at the hearing welcomed the potential solution.

``If we had FAA certification for these planes for this mission, then we would have the assurance that NTSB says is lacking today to allow these planes to fly with an acceptable level of risk,'' said Mark Rey, the agriculture undersecretary in charge of forest policy.

The air tankers can drop 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant slurry on a blaze. They make up less than 10 percent of an aerial firefighting fleet, which includes hundreds of helicopters, smaller single-engine tankers and lead planes. Still, some Western-state lawmakers view the air tankers as indispensable.

Safety concerns arose, though, after three air tankers crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members. The NTSB investigated and concluded last month that the tankers' airworthiness couldn't be ensured.

Forest Service and Interior Department officials this week said they were grounding the tankers and replacing them with other aircraft, including as many as eight military C-130s.

The government also decided to terminate contracts with the seven private companies and their subsidiaries throughout the West that own and operate the tankers.

It would cost between $26 million to $40 million to ground and replace the fleet, Rey said, insisting there would be no loss of firefighting capacity.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Thursday urging her to reconsider. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico also has made such a request.

California relies on 14 of the grounded planes, while New Mexico usually has four based around the state during fire season.