The U.S. Forest Service announced today a strategy, developed with input from the Department of the Interior, to replace the fleet of aging air tankers used to battle wildfires with a next generation of newer, faster, more cost-effective large airtankers.
“We need a core fleet of the next generation large airtankers to supplement our boots-on-the-ground firefighters for what we know will be longer and more severe wildfire seasons in years to come,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Not only will these newer, more effective airtankers help us keep fires contained and communities safe, they will also protect our brave men and women on the fireline.”
Although no large airtanker has been built specifically for firefighting, several aircraft were designed to handle similar stresses. Recommendations for the next generation of airtankers include:
- Capabilities of carrying a minimum of 1,800 gallons of mixed retardant with more than 3,000 gallons preferred.
- A minimum cruise speed of 345 mph for quick fire response over long distance.
- Powering by turbine engines, which are more reliable, more fuel efficient, and require less maintenance than older aircraft piston engines.
- Capabilities of operating from most federal airtanker bases.
- Forest Service contract structural integrity program requirements must be met.
“The effectiveness of airtankers on a wildfire is directly proportional to its speed and load capacity,” Tidwell said. “Large airtankers can be effective in thick forest canopies and areas of dense brush or timber. A larger load capacity also allows large airtankers to split their retardant loads to support different parts of a fire without delay of returning to base.”
The best mix of tools for wildland firefighting includes ground and air resources. However, retardant applied from large airtankers may slow the progress of a wildfire so firefighters on the ground can safely construct a fireline to contain it.
Tidwell noted that as airtankers age, maintenance costs and safety risks rise. The Forest Service’s current large airtanker fleet is at least 50 years old and more than half of the aircraft face mandatory retirement within the next 10 years. The fleet has decreased in size from 43 in 2000 to only 11 under contract today.
Currently all large air tankers are owned and operated under contract by private companies.
Airtankers provided under contract by private industry will continue to be essential in effective wildland firefighting. Long term, the Agencies will continue to explore the costs and benefits of all types of aircraft and ownership models.
The fleet of aircraft that are used for wildland fire suppression also includes water scoopers, single engine airtankers, very large airtankers and helicopters.