- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

U.S. Forest Service executives were starkly warned just weeks before the California wildfires ignited that they risked losing the ability to fight future blazes by air because they had been unable to devise a politically acceptable plan to replace half-century-old aerial tankers that soon will be unworthy for flight.

“If [Forest Service] does not make a convincing case, Congress and [White House Office of Management and Budget] may not give funding support for replacing aging aircraft, which may weaken future firefighting effectiveness and firefighter safety,” the Agriculture Department’s inspector general told the agency in a July report, which was reviewed by The Washington Times.

For decades, the massive aerial tankers have been one of the government’s iconic weapons against forest fires, soaring past mountains and though plumes of smoke to drop thousands of gallons of retardant chemicals that suppress the brush-consuming flames.

But more than half of the agency’s fleet was grounded in 2004 for safety reasons and the remaining 19 tankers are between 40 and 60 years old and are expected to be either unworthy for flight or too expensive to operate as early as 2012. The agency began an effort in 2005 to secure funding for new aircraft but has yet to work out a plan that could win either executive branch or congressional approval.

The inspector general’s report implored a sense of urgency and criticized the agency for not having the political skills to make its case.

The tankers are “key resources because they can fly to remote areas and quickly contain small fires before they become larger, costlier and more dangerous,” the watchdog said.

Forest Service officials said Thursday that they were doing the best they can to keep the current fleet operational and safe, but that new purchases were imperative.

“We take every precaution to make sure the planes are safe to fly,” said Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service. “They are getting old. They are not a solution for the future.”

Mr. Harbour said he agreed with nearly all of the recommendations of the audit and that he would use them to help make the best case possible for modernizing the Forest Service aircraft fleet.

Agriculture Department Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong, the independent watchdog for the Forest Service, has been expressing concern about the safety of the air tankers. She told Congress in March that the fleet was between 40 and 60 years old and “accumulating flight hours at a rate four to five times greater than the annual rate air tankers experienced 30 years ago.”

“Under these circumstances, even the best air safety program cannot reasonably be expected to to be able to continue to protect the public and FS employees from accidents,” she said.

Getting new planes is just another headache for the Forest Service, which — according to members of Congress — is turning into the fire service because nearly half of the agency’s budget now goes to fighting forest fires.

The federal government — the Forest Service and the Department of Interior — spend $2 billion a year fighting wildfires — up from $200 million about a decade ago.

The fire in the Angeles National Forest in California is only the latest in a string of serious fires the Forest Service has had to deal with in recent years.

The aging air tankers are one of the Forest Service’s key firefighting tools. according to the audit and Mr. Harbour. The tankers spray flame retardant. which slows a fire’s growth. The retardant also lowers the intensity of the fires to allow for firefighters to get close and put them out. The tankers are most effective at containing fires in their initial stage, according to the audit.

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.