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Air tankers may return to firefighting

/ Source: The Associated Press

Some large air tankers that had been grounded over safety concerns could be back fighting fires this summer if their private operators can prove they are safe to fly, federal officials said Wednesday.

The Forest Service grounded the 33-plane fleet last month because it had no way to tell if the aging planes were safe. But officials said Wednesday they have worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop guidelines to assess the planes’ airworthiness.

The private companies that operate the military surplus planes will be asked to supply detailed records showing each plane’s flight history, maintenance and other information, said Mark Rey, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service.

Once that information is received, the Forest Service will work with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board to determine what planes can be returned to service, Rey told the Senate Commerce Committee. Officials canceled $30 million in contracts for use of the large air tankers last month, citing safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people.

Pressed by lawmakers when the planes could be back in use, Rey said some will probably never return. But others could be returned to service in about 30 days, he said.

“If they have the records, and if the records are adequate, and if the records indicate the planes are airworthy,” then some could be returned to service, Rey said, adding, “That’s three ifs.”

Western lawmakers welcomed the possible return of the air fleet but fretted that bureaucratic delays could cause the planes to miss the crucial summer firefighting season.

“Some faceless little person ... can give us the run-around and we won’t get the planes off the ground and put out fires,” said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also was dubious.

“The bottom line is, I have no confidence you have any intention to allow these tankers to do their job,” she told Rey, adding that firefighters in California have complained that the Forest Service underestimates the value of large tankers in suppressing wildfires.

In a lengthy rebuke, Boxer told Rey he did “not exhibit the attitude of a can-do person.”

Rey, a veteran bureaucrat, assured Boxer he would put the planes back in the air if they are proven to be safe.

“I will be as can-do as I can be,” he said.

Even if the tankers are not restored, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have adequate resources to fight fires this summer, Rey said. The two agencies said Tuesday they plan to add nearly 130 more aircraft to their 700-plane fleet as soon as possible.

Private companies will supply up to 48 smaller air tankers, and 71 large and medium-sized helicopters to take up the slack, officials said. Eight military C-130 aircraft also will be used. The extra firefighting help will cost about $66 million.