Federal firefighting agency leaders today said they have a sufficient mix of aerial resources to meet this fire season. This announcement follows preliminary results of a study on P2V airtankers, which showed that they could be used in the upcoming fire season.
"While many wildland fires are effectively suppressed on the ground without the need of air support, aerial resources remain one of the many tools that assist firefighters in stopping more than 99 percent of all fires before they ever become unmanageable," said Mark Rey, USDA under secretary for natural resources and environment. "In recent years, fire managers have increased the use of smaller planes and helicopters in firefighting support because of their increased capacity and maneuverability compared to the larger airtankers which offer the benefit of long-range delivery of retardant rapidly in the initial attack of a wildfire."
In May 2004, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management terminated the contracts for 33 heavy airtankers due to the National Transportation Safety Board concerns about the airworthiness of the aircraft. In July 2004, the agencies determined the airworthiness of eight P3s and returned these planes to service.
In February, the Forest Service initiated an engineering study to determine the life limit of nine P2Vs. The operational service life is expressed in how many hours an aircraft can be safely flown. It takes into account the stresses imposed on the airframe during different flight missions. Since the P2Vs were in service before the U.S. Navy's development of structural analysis and fatigue life limit programs, the development of this information required additional engineering work. In a typical fire season, a P2V aircraft flies approximately 200-300 hours.
Preliminary results of the study found that some P2V aircraft may be safely returned to service. Once additional inspections are completed on the P2V aircraft, two of the aircraft currently on limited service will be returned to full service and seven additional aircraft may be awarded contracts for work beginning in July. Minden Air (Minden, Nev.) owns two of the P2Vs and Neptune Aviation (Missoula, Mont.) owns the remaining seven.
"Airtankers are a critical component of the fire suppression program," said Interior Assistant Secretary Lynn Scarlett. "Restoring these aircraft to our fleet will give us greater flexibility in providing aviation support to wildland firefighting."
Firefighters will have the following aerial resources at their disposal this season:
- At least six large helitankers and helicopters and more than 700 helicopters total;
- 28 single engine airtankers as well as about 70 on standby;
- Six CL215 and CL415 airtankers;
- Eight military C130 aircraft outfitted with modular airborne firefighting systems;
- Seven P3 airtankers; and
- Up to nine P2V airtankers (once additional inspections are completed).
The Forest Service and the Department of Interior, together with interagency partners, continue to work on a long-term plan for aviation resources.
The P2V operated as a land-based patrol bomber in the 1950s and 1960s by the U.S. Navy and was the predecessor to the P3. The original manufacturer is Lockheed Martin who produced the aircraft until 1963.
The preliminary outlook for the 2005 fire season shows normal fire potential in the southern and eastern states. Significant fire activity in the southwest is expected to occur mostly in the southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico at lower elevations. Recent rainfall in the west has delayed an early onset of the fire season in the northwest and northern Rockies; activity in these areas should begin in early July. Alaska is not expected to have another severe fire season like that of last year. Currently, the main threat for high fire potential is in the western Kenai Peninsula due to large areas of bug-killed spruce.