As wildfires burn, air tankers in short supply

The massive Rim Fire burning outside Yosemite National Park is one of California's largest wildfires in recorded history. But as western wildfires rage, an alarming federal report blames red tape for a shortage of airplanes to douse the flames.

Federal investigators say the federal government's fleet of large air tankers has shrunk dramatically. There were 44 planes in 2002; compare that to just eight planes operating in 2013. Auditors blame red tape and bidding delays for stunting the growth of the fleet.

"Ten years ago, the Forest Service knew they were in trouble and knew they were going to have a problem," according to Tom Eversole, who represents the air tanker industry.

Eversole says he has been pressuring the U.S. Forest Service to modernize its fleet for years because air tankers are critical for fighting wildfires.

"Air tankers and helicopters don't put out fires. They basically contain it so the folks on the ground can actually put the fire out," Eversole says. The Forest Service has taken aging tankers out of service over the past decade, and others have crashed. A single tanker can cost millions of dollars, but Eversole says the need for the big planes is growing. Internal government auditors seem to agree and they blame the Forest Service for not pushing to expand the fleet. 

Recent fire fights in the western United States have relied on the contributions of Canadian and military aircraft.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.