Federal officials announced this week that they were leasing more than 100 firefighting aircraft this season to compensate for the recent grounding of a fleet of aging air tankers used to combat Western wildfires.
Federal agencies will contract with private companies for the use of helicopters and single-engine air tankers that can drop water and retardant on wildfires.
"We are committed to using available resources to stop fires before they become unmanageable," U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said. "These additional aircraft will enable fire managers to fully maintain their ability to stop nearly 99% of all fires on initial attack."
The contracts, which will cost the government $66 million, come after Western lawmakers complained that the grounding of 33 heavy-duty air tankers would leave firefighters and communities vulnerable at the onset of the summer fire season.
Federal agencies decided to stop using the big tankers amid questions about the safety of the fleet, which is decades old and has been involved in three fatal accidents in the last decade.
"My concern was if the tankers were going to be grounded for some length of time, I wanted to make sure the firefighting community had assets available to fight the fires," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). The contracting, he added, "is a very important step. They moved quickly."
Other legislators remained critical. "The replacement planes and helicopters won't be enough," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Western Caucus. "We must get these air tankers back in service."
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said that while he supported leasing the aircraft, the expense would compound shortfalls in firefighting funds.
The grounded tankers are fast and can haul big loads of retardant, which can make a critical difference in the early stages of fighting a fire. The helicopters and single-engine craft "won't do the same job as the air tankers," concedes Jerry Williams, the Forest Service's national director of fire and aviation management. "But each tool that we use has a specific use."
Once at a fire scene, he added, helicopters have more flexibility and can make more frequent reloading trips to nearby water sources than can tankers.
Williams said it was possible the larger tankers could be recertified for use. "They may," he said. "It's a little early to tell."