Department of the Interior

Office of the Secretary
DOI: John Wright, (202) 208-6416
For Immediate Release: June 21, 2004 USFS: Heidi Valetkevitch, (202) 205-1089
Federal Agencies Announce Key Firefighting Deployments:
Additional Aerial Tankers Prepared to Combat Potential Wildfires

The new resources will allow continuation of a near 99 Percent success rate
PHOENIX, Ariz. — During a visit to Arizona today, Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton, accompanied by U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Mark Rey, announced that the USDA Forest Service and agencies of the Department of the Interior have secured a significant number of additional aerial resources to assist in this year’s wildland fire season.

“The addition of these aerial assets will enable wildland fire managers to maintain effective aviation support, while ensuring the safety of our pilots and aircraft as well as communities,” Norton said. “We anticipate that these resources will allow us to continue our efforts in achieving a near 99 percent success rate on initial and extended attack.”

Norton made the announcement during a tour of one of the airtankers at Williams Gateway Airport, which is the base for two military C-130s equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS). The MAFFS units slide into the back of the C-130, allowing it to be temporarily converted into an air tanker for firefighting support. She noted that federal agencies are contracting for 139 more aircraft to supplement the loss of the civilian fleet of heavy tankers. The contract for the civilian airtankers was terminated by the federal agencies after National Transportation Safety Board highlighted safety concerns with the airworthiness of the aircraft.

“I’m confident the reconfigured fleet has the capability to deliver significantly greater volumes of water and retardant on a gallons per hour basis,” said Rey. “Our initial firefighting efforts this year in the Southwest United States bear this out.”

Federal agencies are contracting with private companies for up to 46 single engine airtankers (SEATS), 26 Type I (heavy) helicopters, 57 Type II (medium) helicopters. In addition, eight U.S. C-130 aircraft equipped with the MAFFS are available. An additional $66 million has been invested to acquire the additional aerial assets. The newly contracted aviation assets will be part of the existing fleet of more than 700 firefighting aircraft that drop fire suppressants.

Wildland fires are managed and suppressed on the ground. Fire managers have gradually increased the use of smaller planes and helicopters in firefighting support because of their maneuverability compared to larger airtankers. Thousands of wildland fires each year are suppressed on initial attack without the benefit of air support since not every ignition requires aerial support. Last month, the NTSB found that there was currently no mechanism in place to determine the airworthiness of 33 large fixed-wing airtankers. Due to concerns for the safety of their crews and the public, federal firefighting agencies terminated contracts for the tankers. The air tankers were used in wildland firefighting primarily for initial attack and support.

While efforts are being made to develop a process to determine the airworthiness and safety of the large airtankers, federal and state firefighting partners have developed a supplemental aerial resources strategy that provides additional air support for ground firefighters. The strategy is based on evaluation of existing resources, fire danger, efficiency and cost effectiveness.