As firefighters battle a spectacular blaze raging across Yosemite National Park, the Interior Department is trying to put out a fire of a different sort: criticism from Congress’ main watchdog that officials have failed for years to plan properly for replacing the government’s decrepit, undersized fleet of 50-year-old firefighting aircraft.
The department has known for two decades that its fleet of air tankers — capable of dropping thousands of gallons of water or chemicals on raging fires — was in need of replacement because they date to the Korean War era.
But despite years of debate and budget requests, the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department don’t know what aircraft to buy because they haven’t been keeping records of firefighters’ needs, the planes’ performance or necessary capabilities, the Government Accountability Office says.
“Air tankers are an absolutely vital part of the firefighting forces,” said Mike Lopez, a fire captain and 23-year veteran of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, one of the lead agencies fighting the Yosemite blaze. “Typically, they can reach fires quicker and more rapidly than the traditional fire crews.”
The GAO says the problem is that “little empirical data exist to measure the performance and effectiveness of such aircraft use” because federal officials have failed to collect information on the sizes, types and capabilities of planes that would best fight fires.
“Better knowledge about aircraft effectiveness and more complete input from all involved parties could inform Forest Service and Interior decisions and help them ensure the adequacy of the nation’s firefighting aircraft fleet,” the investigative arm of Congress said in a report released last week as the fire in California began reaching dramatic proportions.
Federal officials agreed with the GAO’s concerns about the fleet but stopped short of promising to collect the data necessary to make informed purchases. The Forest Service said, however, that it thinks several medium-sized planes would be able to help battle fires and take some of the workload off the larger tankers.
The lack of hard information on plane performance is the result of a number of factors, the GAO said, “including safety concerns regarding adding to the workload of aerial firefighters while they are flying over fires, firefighters’ concerns that the Forest Service will use the information to criticize their performance, a firefighting culture that values experience and history over data and scientific analysis and the challenges in finding time to complete data collection while fighting wildfires.”
But investigators insist that good information is needed and point to Canada as an example. Canadian officials recently found their firefighting planes were in hangars often more than 100 miles from the most common wildfire areas, so the aircraft were moved closer to allow for faster responses. It’s that degree of basic information that the U.S. is lacking, the GAO said.
Large tankers are able to carry at least 1,800 gallons and can “quickly assist in containing small fires before they become larger, costlier and more dangerous,” the GAO said.
The toll on the planes is rigorous. Pilots are required to fly slowly at low altitudes above fires, which can put a lot of stress on the wings of the craft. Two fatal crashes occurred last year, both because the wings fell off in flight.
The planes often serve as the first line of defense, Mr. Lopez said, and represent one component of attacking a fire alongside crews on the ground. Mr. Lopez is also the president of CDF Firefighters, a union that represents more than 6,000 California firefighters, many of whom are fighting the blaze in Yosemite.
As several destructive wildfires have swept the Western U.S., the vehicles have undergone their fair share of work. Between 2007 and 2012, the Forest Service and Interior Department reported that $2.4 billion was spent on firefighting aircraft, fuel and the fire retardant chemicals they use.
The planes cannot be bought quickly. Most are surplus military craft that have been converted to firefighting. As a stopgap measure, the Forest Service gave contracts to the private owners of nine aircraft that can be used for firefighting. But the GAO is concerned about the age of the craft. Seven of the privately owned tankers are converted Korean War airplanes.
In 2012, the Forest Service proposed a plan to buy new air tankers at $79 million apiece. But the White House Office of Management and Budget rejected the proposal, saying it was incomplete and might not be feasible.
Since 1995, nine major attempts have been made to identify the number and types of aircraft needed, but GAO said success has been limited.
Getting new planes is becoming increasingly important, investigators said.
“Experts project that, as fire seasons become longer and more severe, the need for firefighting aircraft will continue to grow,” the GAO said.
The Forest Service is even looking into expanding its fleet of “very large air tankers” — converted Boeing 747s, McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and other commercial-size airplanes usually used to carry hundreds of passengers.