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Sun, July 21

Spin control on tanker issue can be confusing

WASHINGTON – Top Forest Service officials have been working on spin control with the heavy air tanker issue from the time they canceled all 33 contracts May 10 through Friday when five of them were cleared to return to service.

Two arrived in Arizona Sunday evening, and one is stationed at the Prescott Fire Center.

Just one day after the federal government cancelled the wildland firefighting contracts, a Southwestern Regional Forest Service employee warned other employees in a memo that to "err on the side of being conservative in your remarks regarding the airtanker situation would probably be smart."

That memo accompanied an internal plan for the Southwestern Region that states "increased burn acres would be inevitable."

In its analysis, the region determined that it will face "an increase of cost and acres burned" without the heavy tankers.

Also on May 11, the government produced a memo containing a mantra that spokespeople have been repeating quite a bit since.

"Wildland fires are managed and suppressed on the ground, not from the air," the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stated in their internal communications plan about the contract termination issue.

Retired Forest Service official Jim Paxon, who is widely known as the spokesman on the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona, offered a different viewpoint in a May 29 letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

"None of these replacements can lay a line of retardant in heavy timber and none are even close to the capacity nor response time of a heavy air tanker," Paxon said of the single-engine air tankers, military heavy tankers and helicopters brought in to cover the loss of the heavy air tankers.

Paxon noted that the military planes have a hard time reaching only half the retardant coverage level of the private heavy tankers.

As a former wildfire incident commander, Paxon could recall more than one time when "fires were caught at just a few acres with the aid of a single drop from a heavy air tanker that cooled down the head of the fire and slowed its progress until ground forces could hook the fire and stop its spread.

"Without that support from heavy air tankers, most of those fires would have gone several hundred if not thousands of acres."

In Aviation and Space Week Technology's May 17 issue, the Forest Service's top aviation official Tony Kern wrote, "By transferring the fixed-wing mission to large helicopters in many areas where wildlands and urban areas meet, protection of homes and property may actually increase due to shorter turnaround times, (and) greater accuracy in delivering water or fire retardants."

When the Forest Service and BLM announced Friday that at least five tankers would return to duty Monday and more could be on the way after further inspections, their tone was noticeably different.

"The safety of our firefighters, aviators and the communities we serve is our first priority," BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said Friday. "Being able to bring these assets back into the fire managers' toolbox is a real benefit.

"The return to service of these aircraft will assist the on-the-ground firefighters to safely stop wildfires."

Just this past weekend, Tonto National Forest spokesman Vincent Piccard told the Arizona Republic the Forest Service probably wouldn't use the heavy air tankers on the approximately 80,000-acre Willow Fire near Payson because the tankers are better for initial attack and level terrain.

But by Monday, two heavy air tankers were back in service in Arizona, and they were helping to battle the Willow Fire that lightning ignited June 24 in rugged, steep terrain. Tankers #26 and #27 are owned by Aero Union Corp. of Chico, Calif. One is stationed in Prescott and one in Winslow.

An internal National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) May 21 document lists why the feds believe all single-engine air tankers (SEATs) and helitankers still are OK to use without special inspections. It states that they are certificated and operating within the "original design intent," and defines that as "a mission that falls within the FAA designated airworthiness category listed as standard, utility or restricted."

Yet the heavy tankers operate via the restricted category, too.

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