Why suspend the large air tankers?

Clarke is director of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and Bosworth is chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service
Since the mid-1950s when we began using air tankers on wildland fires, we have relied primarily on older, surplus military aircraft. They served us well, reliably, and safely for many years. However, as fire seasons passed, these aircraft aged, and the stresses of working in a wildfire environment, where frequent and aggressive low-level maneuvers and high levels of turbulence are the norm, began to take a toll. That toll turned tragic.

In the last decade accidents began to happen. Most recently, in 2002, two air tankers fell from the sky, with the crews giving their lives. We must guard against the possibility that not only additional crews, but also lives and property on the ground could be lost in a crash.

That’s why we terminated the contract for these tankers pending a determination that they can be operated safely. The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the tankers have potential structural problems that might lead to a catastrophe if we send them to fight a fire. The NTSB has further determined that there is no means currently to immediately ensure the air worthiness of these aircraft.

We’re working overtime with the Federal Aviation Administration on both short- and long-term plans, but in the meantime we can still do our firefighting job. We have hundreds of aircraft providing water-, foam- and retardant-dropping capability, including medium and large helicopters, smaller single-engine air tankers, and military air tankers. In addition, we have thousands of firefighters—including smokejumpers and hotshot crews—as well as fire engines and bulldozers ready to fight fires on the ground, which is critical to stopping fires from spreading. Contrary to widespread belief, fires are stopped on the ground—not from the air. Our objective is to continue our record of success, suppressing 98 percent of fires upon initial attack.

We understand public concern, but the American people expect us not to place lives at needless risk. Safety is our core value in firefighting. There is nothing we do in fighting wildfires that is worth losing one life.