Military Planes to Be Used on Wildfires

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal forest officials said Tuesday they will rely on military planes, along with other, smaller aircraft, to fight forest fires after grounding large air tankers this week because of safety concerns.

Firefighting agencies will use as many as eight military C-130 planes along with water-carrying helicopters and fixed-wing planes akin to crop-dusters, officials said.

It will cost anywhere from $26 million to $40 million to replace the big tankers, including costs to terminate the existing contracts, which had been signed though the 2004 fire season, said Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who directs forest policy.

``We will not be short-handed. We will have to stretch to reconfigure, but we should be just fine,'' Rey told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.

Some lawmakers were unconvinced.

``I seriously doubt your agency will able to fight fires effectively and efficiently,'' said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.

``I don't think there is any question that we are obviously facing a tough year,'' said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. ``If you reduce your ability to fight fires, you are going to have a problem.''

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said he worried that tanker companies with good safety records, such as Montana-based Neptune Aviation Services, were being ``punished for the safety missteps of others.''

Rey denied that and said officials grounded the tankers after concluding they did not have enough expertise to ensure that the privately owned planes were safe to fly.

``To continue to use these large air tankers when no mechanism exists to ensure their airworthiness presents an unacceptable level of risk to aviators, the firefighters on the ground and the communities that we serve,'' Rey said.

The head of an association that represents air tanker companies said officials were condemning companies throughout the West to bankruptcy. Aircraft contractors are located in Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming, with subsidiaries in several other states.

``I just feel they've walked away from this whole issue and not properly addressed it,'' said Bill Broadwell, executive director of the Aerial Firefighting Industry Association. ``They could have done better.''

The 33 large, fixed-wing tankers _ each of which can drop as much as 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant slurry on a blaze _ make up less than 10 percent of the aerial firefighting fleet, which also includes more than 400 helicopters, smaller single-engine tankers and lead planes.

The big ``fire bombers,'' though, have come to symbolize to the public that a wildfire is being fought vigorously.

That image suffered in recent years, as three planes crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members. After two planes went down in 2002, the Forest Service grounded the tanker fleet. The planes were returned to service after a new inspection system was developed.

But last month, the National Transportation Safety Board said the safety and airworthiness of the fleet still could not be assured. The agency said information on the stresses that the planes underwent in fighting fires was incomplete, and there were gaps in maintenance and inspection records dating back to the planes' military use. The planes' average age is nearly 50 years, and some are as old as 60 years.

Broadwell, the industry representative, questioned how federal officials could be confident that smaller aircraft can safely fight fires.

``If they don't have the expertise to manage large air tankers, what gives them expertise to manage helicopters or single-engine air tankers?'' he asked.