With calamitous fire seasons back to back, Colorado was among the Western states to rejoice when legislation was finally passed in the nation’s Capitol to expand and upgrade the U.S. Forest Service’s fleet of firefighting large air tankers.
A Government Accountability Office report, issued just weeks after El Paso County’s disastrous Black Forest Fire last June that killed two residents and destroyed 509 homes, revealed just how diminished the fleet had become. Forest Service large air tankers had dropped from 44 aircraft in 2003 to just eight in 2013.
Although the attrition was gradual, fatal crashes in the 2002 fire season revealed just how decrepit and untenable the fleet had become.
In June of that year, when major fires were raging in much of Colorado, one of the wings ripped away from a PB4Y-2 as it was operating over the Big Elk Fire near Estes Park. Both crew members of Tanker 123 were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found extensive stress fatigue and fractures in key components of the aircraft, which was manufactured almost 60 years before for the U.S. Navy. It was transferred to the Coast Guard in 1952, mothballed in 1956, and converted into an air tanker in 1958, 44 years before the fatal plunge.
The Estes Park crash occurred just a month after three crewmen were killed when their air tanker experienced a major structural failure near Walker, Calif. Much of the fleet had aged to the point of mortal hazard for crew members.
So it was with a sigh of relief that the Western Governors’ Association reported earlier this year that reinforcements are on the way.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 calls for transferring seven C-130 Hercules air tankers from the military to the U.S. Forest Service where they’ll be modified for wildland firefighting, the governors reported.
Additionally, 15 C-23B Sherpa aircraft will be added to the Forest Service fleet. A separate report by Fire Aviation reported that the Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. They are capable of carrying up to 10 smokejumpers or 30 passengers and up to 7,000 pounds of cargo.
The tanker capacity of the C-130 is 3,000-4,000 gallons of fire retardant. Each aircraft will be structurally reinforced by the U.S. Air Force to extend their operational lifetime to about 10 years, according to the Forest Service.
In separate legislation, the long overdue, bitterly debated Farm Bill, there was more good news for the West. The Forest Service was authorized to lease five more firefighting air tankers to help rebuild the fleet.
Now it’s a matter of accomplishing the necessary retrofitting and refurbishments before fire season begins in earnest.