Federal Agencies Defend Decision to Suspend Air Tankers

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The heads of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are defending their decision to suspend the use of air tankers to fight wildfires.

Kathleen Clarke, the director of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management and Dale Bosworth, the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, said they could not justify endangering the lives of air tanker crews when for now, fires can be fought from the ground.

The joint statement released Tuesday came in response to pledges some lawmakers made last month to get the 33-tanker fleet back in the air right away. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz. and others have harshly denounced the government's decision to ground the big fixed-wing aircraft.

During a hearing at the House Resources subcommittee on forests, DeFazio said there was no adequate substitute for the air tankers.

But Clarke and Bosworth said in the prepared statement that the tankers are too damaged by age to be safe for another season. Meanwhile, they said, helicopters, smaller air tankers and other aircraft would be available to boost suppression efforts.

``In addition, we have thousands of firefighters _ including smokejumpers and hotshot crews _ as well as fire engines and bulldozers ready to fight fires on the ground, which is critical to stopping fires from spreading,'' they wrote. ``Contrary to widespread belief, fires are stopped on the ground _ not from the air.''

The agencies said that even without the big air tankers, they planned to maintain a success rate of stopping 98 percent of fires on initial attack.

``We understand public concern, but the American people expect us not to place lives at needless risk. Safety is our core value in firefighting. There is nothing we do in fighting fires that is worth losing one life,'' they said.

The Forest Service decision to suspend the use of 33 aging air tankers came after a recent National Transportation Safety Board report on three air fatal tanker accidents. All happened within the last 10 years.

In 2002, three crew members were killed when a 46-year-old Lockheed C-130A crashed after it lost both wings. Similar problems were found in an aging PB4Y-2 that broke up and crashed fighting a Colorado fire that year, killing both crew members.

In 1994, a C-130A crashed when its right wing came off in flight, killing three people aboard.

``We must guard against the possibility that not only additional crews, but also life and property on the ground could be lost in a crash,'' Bosworth and Clarke said.

The agencies are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with short- and long-term plans, they said.