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Research finds air tankers oftentimes not effective against wildfires

Chris Ramirez
June 30, 2017 08:15 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Residents from areas where wildfires rage likely feel a sigh of relief when the see air tankers fly overhead. They are big and they can hold a lot of water or fire retardant.

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But new research that 4 Investigates found shows the large fire air tankers are expensive, risky and oftentimes not very helpful.

Hollywood has shaped opinions about how wildfires ought to be fought, but projecting how to put out a deadly and dangerous wildfire isn't fantasy.  Too often, there are pressures that force federal agencies to use the most expensive and risky resources and even the wrong ones.

The queen of the sky in firefighting is the DC-10 air tanker. The tankers are able to spread fire retardant or water nearly a mile long. Fire expert, author and historian Stephan Pyne believes these planes are overused and misused.

"You want to find the right tools for the job,"Pyne said. "There are a lot of places where a single-engine air tanker is fine, basically crop dusting fires." 

Research backs Pyne's argument. A U.S. Forest Service report states "initial attack is the phase in which air tankers are most effective. Our work, however, indicates that extended attack and large fire support currently comprise the majority of air tanker use."

The expectation has become that unless you see lots of air tankers and lots of helicopters flying or big chinooks and sky cranes, the agencies aren't doing everything they can and they just aren't effective in circumstances.

Some of that expectation comes politically. Constituents are accustomed to their leaders making these kinds of statements, like this one from Gov. Susana Martinez:

"I've directed our state agencies to work together to ensure that all resources are available to assist in fighting the fire," she said on July 14.

"We are wanting to make sure that we have the assets that are ready and available," Martinez said on July 21.

"I can't fault the politicians," Pyne said. "If it is your district, your state you want to be seen –I'm doing everything imaginable.  But it would be nice if we could have the whole public discourse to come to some sensibility.  We are doing what is sensible and useful in this circumstance and we are not just indulging in political theater for its own sake."

It's not just theater.  There are costs and risks. Using a DC-10 hits $14,000 per hour. Research shows in a four-year window, taxpayers shelled out $338 million in flying contracts.

The risk can outweigh the reward. More firefighters have died in the air than on the ground during a wildfire.

"Ultimately, it's boots on the ground.  It's actual people dealing with the flames," Pyne said.

For the safest and most cost-effective approach, professional wildland firefighters hope politicians and the public allow them to call the shots.

Credits

Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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