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2:28 PM Tue, Oct. 23rd

<I>Governor seeks congressional help</I><BR>Wants to ensure that air tankers will be here for wildfire season

Saying she's upset at the lack of cooperation from top federal officials, Gov. Janet Napolitano is calling on Arizona's congressional delegation to get the U.S. Forest Service to work immediately with states on its aerial firefighting plans.

Napolitano was among numerous state and federal officials to criticize the federal government for suddenly canceling all 33 its heavy air tanker contracts on May 10 last year, just as Arizona's wildfire season was kicking into high gear. Two of the planes were at the Prescott Fire Center.

In September, Napolitano sent a letter to then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman that urged the secretary to involve the states in preparations for the coming fire season, and pushed for Veneman to come up with a plan to modernize the heavy air tanker fleet sooner than 2008 as planned.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey responded that the agency is evaluating modernization options, but the agency then completed short-term and long-term plans for its firefighting aircraft without engaging states in the work, the governor wrote to the congressional delegation.

Arizona has no idea how many heavy air tankers might be available this year, the governor wrote, noting that last year the wildfire season started in March.

"For the Forest Service to sit on its bureaucratic heels … just seems to me to be irresponsible," Napolitano told The Daily Courier Thursday. She called the agency's lack of response to her requests "unacceptable," and that's why she wrote to the congressional delegation.

The governor's new letters to the congressional delegation ask them to join her in urging the Forest Service to:

• Release its long-term and short-term plans as drafts, so the states can be involved in developing them.

• Decide by early February which private air tankers are airworthy for contracts.

• Place an emphasis on Arizona air tanker contractors.

U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi's press secretary, Matthew Ash, said Renzi hasn't seen the letter yet.

"It's an issue that Congressman Renzi is very deeply committed to and concerned about," Ash added, so he'll be checking into it.

While she isn't involved in the policy side of the agency, National Aviations Operations Officer Pat Norbury of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) said the operations side is doing everything possible to be ready for the start of the wildfire season.

"We recognize the urgency of the situation," Norbury said.

However, she doubts that NIFC will decide by February whether all of the potential contract planes are eligible for contracts. She noted that even in the past, only about 10 were under contract by March.

Currently, only eight heavy air tankers, all P-3 Orion former Navy planes, have undergone recertification and are eligible for contracts. NIFC will open bids for those eligible aircraft on Feb. 22, and they could be on duty by early March, Norbury said.

NIFC officials are seeking bids on two engineering firm contracts to develop "operational service lives" (OSLs) for the remaining 25 planes, Norbury said. If the planes' air time is lower than their calculated service life, they will be eligible to bid on contracts with the federal government this year, she said. The OSLs must be complete by June 1.

"That's the only thing standing in the way" of contracts, Norbury said, noting that NIFC already has approved the potential contractors' maintenance programs. "We potentially could have up to 37 tankers operating this season."

Every heavy air tanker under contract will have structural load measuring equipment on board this year, to help NIFC evaluate their airworthiness, Norbury said.

Unlike previous annual contracts, new contracts no longer specify bases for each heavy tanker, Norbury said. That's one reason NIFC can't guarantee that the Prescott Fire Center will have two heavy tankers based there by May, as was the case in the past.

The new contracts allow NIFC to be more efficient with limited budget money, sending planes where they're needed, she said.

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com