Aerial Firefighters Pledge Reform

SACRAMENTO (AP) -- The aerial firefighting industry promised reforms Thursday to help prevent a repeat of this summer, when two aging air tankers crashed fighting wildfires in California and Colorado, killing five people.

Increased safety will cost taxpayers a substantial but undetermined amount of money at a time when Western wildfires unprecedented in number and severity already have strained firefighting budgets, the Aerial Firefighting Industry Association said.

In a letter released Thursday by a task force studying the nation's aging fleet of firefighting air tankers, the association said tanker companies are considering tougher and more frequent inspections, the use of data recording equipment to monitor stress on aircraft, more safety training and other changes.

Association executive director William Broadwell said many reforms are already in place. New procedures will be in place by Jan. 1, and new equipment could be installed by the start of next year's fire season, the association said.

The task force, which completed the last of six hearings Thursday, was established after an air tanker crashed near Walker, Calif., in June after its wings snapped off, an image captured by a television news crew. All three men on board were killed.

A month later, another air tanker crashed near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, killing both crew members.

The planes were 46 and 57 years old, respectively. Investigations into those crashes are ongoing and it is unclear whether age played a role.

Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc., which operated both of the aircraft that crashed this summer, has said that the $15 million the Forest Service spends annually to contract for the military surplus air tankers is not enough to keep the planes in top shape.

The task force is set to issue its report next month.