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Firefighting Tankers Return to Air After Being Grounded

July 21, 2002|From Associated Press

DENVER — An order grounding much of the nation's firefighting fleet of aging, heavy-duty air tankers was lifted Saturday, two days after the second deadly crash since June in the middle of a busy wildfire season.

Still grounded pending results of federal investigations, however, were nine planes of the same types as those that crashed in June near Walker, Calif., and Thursday near Lyons, Colo., killing a total of five crew members.

A PB4Y-2 Privateer, a former Navy bomber that saw duty during World War II, came apart in the air Thursday while carrying a load of fire retardant to a blaze near the rugged Rocky Mountain National Park, about 45 miles northwest of Denver. The fire had grown to about 4,000 acres Saturday.

On Friday, the government ordered a 24-hour stand-down of 32 other tankers to allow inspections of the aircraft and to give crews a rest.

The order was lifted Saturday. Not all of the planes returned to service immediately, as some contractors asked for more time to get planes ready, said Jack deGolia of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The four-engine Privateer was built in 1945, and investigators were examining whether age was a factor.

"We haven't ruled out anything yet," said David Bowling, a National Transportation Safety Board safety specialist.

The U.S. Forest Service hires the tankers from private companies that own, operate and maintain them. The nation's firefighting aircraft average 42 years old, and the newest were built in the late 1950s, said interagency fire center spokeswoman Venetia Gempler.

The planes are subjected to high stress because of numerous takeoffs and landings, and quick changes in weight when the cargo of retardant is dumped.

On June 17, a C-130A air tanker crashed when its wings snapped off near Walker, about 25 miles north of Yosemite National Park. The five remaining C-130A firefighting aircraft have yet to return to the air.

Both crashed tankers were owned by Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo.

Meanwhile Saturday, two wildfires crackling through sagebrush and juniper in south-central Oregon merged Saturday to create an 83,000-acre blaze. Residents of more than 60 homes were urged to evacuate.

Crews said they'll have a better shot at containing the blaze now that it's concentrated in one area. "The fire crews are getting together and talking about what's going to happen next," said Dale Warriner, a fire spokesman.

The wildfire was the second-largest in the nation, trailing only a complex of fires burning across 94,000 acres in a remote area northwest of Green River, Utah, said Marc Hollen, spokesman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

So far this year, wildfires have burned more than 3.5 million acres around the United States.

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