The Forest Service Is Building a Firefighting Airforce

Aims to purchase 28 new tankers

A DC-10 air tanker fights the 2013 Rim Fire, the largest on record in the Sierra Nevadas. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Fires Rim Fire news from the field fire retardant dc-10 air tanker wildfire u.s. forest service hannah weinberger outside online outside magazine sierra nevada

Sometimes the only way to contain a large and destructive wildfire is by plane, but after a number of U.S. Forest Service air tankers crashed in the early 2000s and the agency's budget imploded, the USFS began severely shrinking its elderly fleet from more than 40 planes in 2000 to nine in 2012.

After several close shaves, and despite still-limited funds, the USFS is attempting a new fix to its aerial issues—growing and modernizing the fleet of fire-retardant-dispensing tankers instead of parking old planes for good.

It's hard to fight new problems with technology dating back to World War II, like the first generation of air tankers. The government has required that its next generation of tankers, commissioned in 2013, be capable of carrying 3,000 gallons of retardant and flying at 300 knots.

They'll likely also be bigger. Incident commander Bill Hahnenberg had to call in an 11,000-gallon DC-10 air tanker after his squad almost failed to contain Idaho's Springs Fire in August 2012. The government has been hesitant to commission these jumbo jets because of cost, but many contractors have failed to produce the smaller planes that were commissioned.

Hahnenberg said the agency hopes to have 28 large air tankers available within three years. As of late May, 21 planes have been commissioned, four of which are DC-10s.

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