(The recent) decision by federal officials to ground the nation's air tankers just as the wildfire season gets under way is, in the words of an Oregon congressman, ''a crisis.'' Alaskans share in the concern since the grounding affects two of the four tankers that operate in the state.
It's not the type of news to receive as the ground cover steadily dries out. Alaska fire officials have already, in this young season, announced one suspension of burn permits.
The grounding of the air tankers certainly is cause for worry, in Alaska and the Western states, and Congress appears ready to provide a short-term solution.
The problem appears to be that the Federal Aviation Administration lacks the authority to certify the aircrafts' airworthiness when they are being used for government purposes. And that became an issue following an inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board, which began looking at the airworthiness after three of the tankers crashed from 1994 to 2002. Seven crew members died in those crashes, and the NTSB ultimately said there is no way to ensure the safety of the aircraft. Some members of Congress say the problem can be solved quickly by granting the FAA the authority to inspect such aircraft; the agency already has the authority to inspect similar aircraft used in the private sector. But that's only a short-term solution.
The larger, and unresolved, issue is what to do about the aging fleet. The tankers, many of them retired from military service, have an average age of 48 years. Some are as old as 60 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The initial response to the grounding was that other types of aircraft will have to step in. But the large air tankers provide a service that may be difficult to replicate. They move exceptionally large quantities of retardant at great speed, key elements in the early stages of a wildfire.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman after the grounding was announced, asked questions worthy of answers:
''Can you assure me that helicopters and other replacement aircraft will be equally effective as the grounded air tankers on the initial attack?
''If a single helicopter is less effective than an air tanker, do we need to take other measures, such as replacing part of the air tanker fleet with other air tankers or replacing the grounded planes with helicopters on a more than one-for-one basis?
''Does Congress need to start budgeting additional funds over the next year or years in order fully to restore our firefighting effectiveness?''
The grounding of the tanker fleet is important to Alaska. Perhaps this event will focus attention on ensuring the nation has an up-to-date, and safe, fleet for what is a dangerous business.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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