Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

“We’re short eight air tankers this year,” replied U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell, when asked how the agency was preparing for what might be a “perfect storm.”

Air tankers play a critical role in federal agencies’ battles with wildfires. These aircraft reduce fire’s intensity and rate of spread until firefighters can reach the fire or can support the ground troops already fighting the flames, according to the Forest Service.

On Tuesday, March 6, Tidwell appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss the Forest Service’s 2012-13 budget request.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked, “What are you going to do for this fire season?” Wyden had just expressed his worries about the limited number of available air tankers, fewer helicopters and the dry winter.

In its air tanker modernization strategy plan submitted to Congress in February, the Forest Service reported that it expects 10 of its 11 air tankers to be retired by 2021. Their average age is more than 50 years.

In November, the agency solicited proposals for providing seven newer and larger air tankers. On Jan. 20, the solicitation was revised and re-issued. The responses were due on Feb. 15. The Forest Service has not said whether there were responses or how many.

Tidwell was optimistic that a contract for three air tankers could be issued before the 2012 fire season and another four tankers, for a total of seven, could be available in 2013.

Tidwell told Wyden that was not enough, and referred to the agency’s fire aviation plan submitted to Congress in early February. Tidwell would like to secure 18 to 28 more tankers for the agency. Their capacity would range from 1,800 gallons to more than 3,000 gallons. The whole fleet would be composed of these large air tankers and smaller craft as well as water scoopers and helicopters.

This year, he said, the Forest Service would rely upon the Air National Guard for support. However, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ark., reminded Tidwell that the Department of Defense was reluctant to commit its resources to domestic use.

Tidwell concurred, but said he expects the Air National Guard to provide up to eight C-130s for additional capacity. “They’re not interested in expanding their minimum,” Tidwell said. “They continue to work with us to provide eight planes when we need them, but only after everything else committed.”

Wyden encouraged Tidwell to speed up the Forest Service’s effort to consider new technology for firefighting.