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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Ancient pelicans

At regular intervals, we are treated to news videos of gigantic forest fires out west — infernos that are so big they create their own weather.

As neatly coiffed correspondents do standups in front of weary firefighting crews or cruise overhead in helicopters, homes are overwhelmed by the fires and millions of dollars in property is destroyed.

Some of this is due to the fact that official policy over recent decades has been to attack every fire, even small ones, rather than let them burn the undergrowth that makes these blazes grow so quickly.

But the main reason is that more and more people are building farther and farther into the western forests, relishing the beauty of nature without thinking too hard about the dangers of fire and flood.

These fires are a state and regional responsibility, but national resources are routinely needed, as well.

But increasingly, it’s become clear that brave men and women, working with hand tools and fire engines, are not enough.

As a result, aerial tankers are being used as a main weapon.

They’ve always been part of the equation, but the size and ferocity of the fires dictates their use in greater numbers.

And that’s a problem.

Put simply, there aren’t enough tankers to do the job ... and many of them are very weary, indeed.

Let’s take a look at our “fleet.”

PBY “Catalinas” that were designed before World War II.

Lockheed P-2Vs — early Cold War sub hunters.

Martin B-26s — World War II attack bombers.

C-130s — sturdy turboprop freighters, but only old and battered ones tend to find their way into the firefighting fleet.

The Martin PB2M-1 “Mars” flying boat — two, built during WWII, are in use.

One DC-10 wide-bodied jet airliner and one Boeing 747 are in use, despite the danger of flying a huge jet designed for high-altitude passenger service at treetop levels.

There are some new aircraft in use. The Bombardier 415 Superscooper, built in Canada specifically to fight fires, can skim a lake or river surface and scoop up water without landing, thereby allowing quicker trips to the scene of the fire.

But money is in short supply for these special aircraft. So the old birds continue to fly, despite the hazards. Since 2001, tanker crashes have killed 22 aviators. Six died last year.

Eleven studies since 1995 have concluded that the Forest Service needs to replace its tankers. In 2009, the service sought $2.5 billion to buy 18 to 28 aircraft. The funding was denied by its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture.

“It’s pathetic,” said Tony Kern, former Forest Service chief of aviation. “We have brave aviators using ancient technologies and as a result they’re losing their lives. It’s a horrifying fact that won’t change unless government action is taken.”

The Forest Service says it is trying to modernize. It issued contracts to seven companies this year, but most of those planes are not yet ready to enter service.

Although the contracts call them “next-generation” planes, they aren’t so new.

One of them was pulled from an aviation museum in San Bernardino, where it had been on display for 10 years.

I love old airplanes and it’s a tribute to their makers that so many are still flying, many decades after “Rosie the Riveter” and her fellow workers tacked their aluminum bodies together.

But many of those being subjected to high g-forces in the turbulent air over enormous forest fires belong in a museum or being gawked at in an airshow.

If, as a nation, we’re going to continue to allow homes and businesses to be built in high-risk areas, and then commit resources to fight fires that threaten them, then we should make building and buying aerial tankers a priority as well.

Tim Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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