The news was full of headlines about the horrific wildfires in the Texas panhandle today. The Washington Post had two articles (Six Killed As Fires Sweep W. Texas and Seven Reported Dead in Southwest Wildfires), the Houston Chronicle had an Associated Press release (Raging Texas Wildfire Blamed for 6 Deaths), USA Today had one (Wildfires ignite more than 700,000 acres in Texas, N.M.), as did many other papers. High winds in the early hours of the fires kept the air-tanker fleet grounded, and even when they got airborne, there is only so much you can do with the skeleton crew that remains of the once-proud air-tanker fleet. Gone are the days when the US Forest Service could call on upwards of 50 heavy air-tankers. Only 17 planes remain, and it doesn't look like any more are going to get into the air anytime soon. There are some hopeful signs that new air-tanker types are soon to be fielded (Jumbo jet applies for firefighting job), but the 747 and DC-10 air-tankers will constitute only two aircraft tops, to begin with. As mentioned in the USA Today article, the Forest Service is skeptical about the usefulness of these planes in treacherous mountain terrain.
Something needs to be done to get the grounded heavy air-tankers back in the air, and to get better benefits for air-tanker pilots and crew, so they stop leaving the business. Three bills before Congress could help. H.R. 1232 and S. 1143 would provide better benefits to pilots and crew, and a bill left over from the 108th Congress, H.R. 4533, would get the grounded tankers inspected and repaired. Without these heavyweights in the inventory this fire season (which has already started in about 20 states), the outlook is grim indeed. Fire managers are going to be forced to rely more on smaller air-tankers and slower helicopters to do the job. This is going to put them on a par with the undersized coalition force in Iraq trying to keep the peace - and we can all see how that fight is turning out. Let me know what you think about this critical issue: firstname.lastname@example.org.