Navajo-Hopi Nations,Flagstaff & Winslow News
Fri, Sept. 18

U.S. Forest Service terminates air tankers contract in Winslow

Last week the U.S. Forest Service announced its decision to terminate contracts with companies that operate 33 heavy air tankers used to fight wildfires in the western states. This decision is felt here in Winslow where several air tankers have been based at the National Forest Air Tanker base located at the Winslow Lindburgh Regional Airport.

Air tanker pilot Gary Schooler has been based in Winslow for the past few years and has fought several wildfires in Arizona including the Rodeo-Chediski fire that devastated the White Mountains nearly two years ago. Schooler said he is shocked the forest service would terminate contracts going into possible the worst fire season in Arizona history. ÒMost wildfires are caught at the initial face of attack usually by air. The forest conditions are the worst they have been in a long time. The danger of the dry timber forests are unreal,Ó said Schooler.

Schooler said he feels top forest officials have some sort of hidden agenda. ÒIt doesnÕt make sense that the forest service would terminate contracts right as the hot summer months are just beginning. It needs to be clear that the tankers were not grounded. Only the FAA, can ground a plane and they did not do that. The NTSB investigates and recommends findings to the FAA, which makes the final decision in grounding aircraft. There was an investigation performed and the FAA chose not to take action in grounding the air tankers. The forest service made the decision to terminate the tankers on their own, saying that they felt the planes were too old and unsafe. People need to know that age of an aircraft is not determined by how old the aircraft is but how many hours the aircraft has logged. My plane is old in age, but it only has 15,000 logged hours on it, which is nothing, because a tanker like mine can log up to 50,000 hours and still be considered okay to fly,Ó added Schooler.

ÒI really hope this yearÕs fire season isnÕt as great as we have seen the last few years. If it is, it will take longer for ground troops to respond to the wildfires. If someone comes across a wildfire in the forest, my advice to them would be run and get the hell out of there. It will be a long time before help arrives,Ó said Schooler.

Governor Janet Napolitano, frustrated by the decision the forest service took in terminating 33 firefighting air tankers, recently sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman asking that the fleet be immediately and safely restored or replaced. The letter read:

ÒThe State of Arizona is facing a wildfire season that has a potential to be catastrophic. A century of mismanagement of the forests and prolonged drought, aggravated by extensive bark beetle infestation, has contributed to unprecedented fire fuel conditions. Improving the health of our forests is my top environmental priority. The protection of our rural communities and our citizens is my highest concern and my greatest responsibility.

The need for rapid and effective initial response to wildland fires cannot be understated. Therefore, it is with great alarm that I receive word of your decision to terminate the contracts for all 33 firefighting air tankers. Unfortunately, your decision not only was untimely, it also was made without consultation with the governors most affected and without any contingency plan in effect.

I understand the need for pilot safety. However, without the availability of these craft, I fear that our ability to protect thousands of citizens in rural communities will be significantly impaired. The condition of and concerns for the large airtanker fleet is not a new problem; indeed it was highlighted by the tragic in-flight structural failures of aircraft in 2002. The past two years should have been spent identifying and directing resources to improve the fleet and secure new reliable aircraft. Now, here we are faced with a potentially horrendous wildland fire season and the decision is made to ground all large air tankers. Your delay in this matter is inexcusable.

It is my understanding there will be attempts to mitigate the impact of this decision through the increased use of single engine air tankers and helicopters. I worry it wonÕt be enough, and I am concerned about the resulting impact on rural communities. I anticipate that the decision to ground the large tankers will profoundly increase the cost of fire suppression to both the federal government and the state. I urge you to make an immediate investment to restore or replace the air tankers will profoundly increase the cost of fire suppression to both the federal government and the state. I urge you to make an immediate investment to restore or replace the air tankers fleet so it is worthy and returned to readiness in preparation to battle this yearÕs wildland fire season.

Considering the current weather and fuel conditions I know it is not a matter of ÒifÓ there is a fire, but Òwhen, where and how manyÓ fires will threaten Arizona communities this summer.

Thank you for your assistance

Janet Napolitano

Will Winslow be economically effected by the terminated contract? See next weekÕs edition to find out!

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