Notice anything odd about this photo?
If the windows on the side of the plane caught your attention, your eyes aren’t fooling you. It’s a commercial airplane being used to fight fires.
Though last year had a record low number of wildfires, a record high number of firefighter deaths may have helped push additional funding for new aerial firefighting contracts.
The massive commercial planes – that look like they could be carrying airline passengers – often serve as a critical part of the lifesaving measures during the summer wildfire season.
The U.S. Forest Service calls them large air tankers, the huge planes are capable of dropping up to 10,000 gallons of fire retardant in front of fast-moving blazes, according to KXLF-TV. If the planes are deployed to the edge of the fire zones early, they can stop a wildfire before it incinerates homes and takes lives.
But these days, that “if” is less about timing and more about reliability of the actual aircraft. Many of the aging planes the aerial firefighters depend date back to World War II.
Neptune Aviation, one aerial firefighting company that regularly flies tankers under contract for the federal government, flies one particular Lockheed P2 that was built to hunt Soviet subs during the cold war.
The aging aircraft and overstressed airframes are blamed for deaths in several accidents, and are the leading cause of wildland firefighting deaths from 1990-2012, and represented 34 percent of the deaths from 2007-2012.
In 2013, fifty seven firefighters perished; hitting a 20-year high brought about in no small part due to the tragic loss of 19 firefighters with the Yarnell wildfires — the worst wildfire tragedy in Arizona history and the highest death toll from a single fire in the nation since 1933.
These staggering numbers may have been the push Congress needed to authorize funding for five new U.S. Forest Service leases for new, modern air tankers to combat wildfires.
The provisions were part of the highly-debated Agriculture Act of 2014, signed into law by President Obama in February. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) pushed for the additions.
“Modern mega-fires threaten entire communities and watersheds across Colorado. These common-sense and cost-effective wildfire mitigation provisions will ensure that Colorado has every tool it needs to protect homes and lives,” Udall said.
The funding is intended to secure more reliable assets for the aerial firefighters, so they can continue to provide this kind of support: check out the DC-10 from 10 Tanker LLC — another contractor the government relies upon — flying low and dumping their crucial flame retardant on areas near last year’s wildfires.
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