Pulling air tankers off fire lines is good call
In Glenwood Springs as elsewhere in the West, the sight of heavy air tankers dropping orange slurry has come to be a reassuring one during wildfire season.
This summer, we’ll have to learn to live without this comforting sight. The federal government decided Monday to ground all heavy firefighting air tankers due to safety concerns.
It’s a hard decision to accept with another bad fire season being predicted. But it’s the right call as long as the National Transportation Safety Board says no effective system is in place for ensuring the tankers’ airworthiness.
The aging fleet of 33 air tankers dates back as far as World War II. In three crashes from 1994 to 2002, fatigue cracks and inadequate maintenance led to wings breaking off in flight, killing a total of seven people. Two of the crashes occurred in 2002, including one near Estes Park that killed the two men on board.
No matter how crucial a role these tankers play in fighting fires, the government could no longer in good conscience allow them to be put into service as long as safety concerns lingered. Many of them were designed for long-distance bombing flights, not missions requiring high maneuverability in mountainous terrain with treacherous updrafts and downdrafts that test their structural integrity.
The deaths of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain 10 years ago this July 6 reminded us that no wildfire is worth unduly risking human life to fight. This includes crews in the air as well as on the ground.
Grounding of the planes will be a setback for firefighting. They played a significant role in helping keep fires small until ground crews could fight them, and in helping protect those crews as well as structures that might be in danger.
Taking the air tankers out of play will also mean that ground crews will have to be deployed more cautiously, for their own safety.
But however emblematic the tankers are to fighting wildfires, they can’t put out fires on their own. Ground crews do that job, and do it well, often getting by without tankers when bad weather, heavy smoke or competing fires keep the planes away.
In addition, federal firefighters and private contractors can call on a large arsenal of helicopters and smaller planes to assist them in their efforts.
Still, the air tankers’ role is important enough that the government needs to move quickly to try to put such planes back in service. In some cases, that may involve devising an inspection program that can return some grounded tankers to the air. More likely, though, the age of some of these venerable birds is such that replacement is the only sound approach.
Replacing them won’t be cheap, but it will be worth it. A large-scale wildfire like the kind that has become all too commonplace can cost millions of dollars to control and millions more in property damage, not to mention the lives it endangers.
The nation for too long has asked too much of aging air tankers manned by brave pilots. We can afford newer and better for these heroes of the skies, and it’s time we upgraded our tanker force for the sake of our firefighting effort and the communities that rely on it.
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