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The Forest Service plans to modernize its firefighting aircraft, particularly the air tanker fleet, over the next decade, according to the audit and Mr. Harbour.

“In 2002, FS had 44 air tankers, but lost more than half in 2004 after they were grounded due to safety concerns,” the inspector general wrote in the audit. The Forest Service decided to ground the air tankers based on an independent review following the loss of five crewmen and two air tankers in accidents in 2002.

“FS estimates that by 2012, the remaining 19 air tankers will begin to be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy,” the audit said. “Because the number of air tankers has sharply declined since 2002, annual flight time for the remaining aircraft has almost doubled, which leads to more stress on the remaining fleet, more repairs and maintenance, and costlier operating expenses.”

The audit says that the Forest Service has become less effective in containing fires initially before they become larger since it began losing air tankers because of safety concerns in 2004.

The Forest Service’s initial attack success rate dropped from 98.8 percent to 97.3 percent by 2007, according to the audit.

“FS estimates that this 1.5 percent decrease represents approximately 150 more fires that escaped initial attack and cost FS an additional $300 million to $450 million to suppress,” the audit says.

Mr. Harbour said the reduced number of tankers was one of the factors in the rate decrease. He said that the Forest Service still had an “excellent” initial attack success rate.

Replacing the air tankers will cost up to $2.5 billion, the Forest Service has said. The new air tankers cost up to $75 million each, and the Forest Service will likely have to purchase them because they cannot be leased at reasonable prices from the manufacturers, according to the audit.

The auditors were critical for the Forest Service’s replacement plan and the documents they had prepared to justify the purchases.

The inspector general said the Forest Service “had not made it strongest case for acquiring new firefighting aircraft” in the plan they put together to get approvals first from the OMB and then from Congress. The OMB rejected an early piece of the plan submitted by the Forest Service, saying it lacked an acquisition plan and a cost benefit analysis, according to the audit. A second Forest Service proposal was pending in July at OMB, the audit said.

The audit also said the Forest Service “had not considered the need to use actual performance data to support its case for new aircraft.” The audit recommended that the agency use “performance measures that directly demonstrated cost-impact.”

Mr. Harbour said he would incorporate the audit’s recommendations into the Forest Service proposals. He said the aircraft replacement plan is being reviewed by the new administration in the Forest Service and the Agriculture Department.

The audit also criticized the Forest Service for not collecting sufficient money from the fees it charged other organizations which used its aircraft. The audit said the Forest Service failed to update its fees as its costs escalated and as a result it will have to rely on congressional appropriations to fund the new purchases.