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CA firefighters split on study of aircraft use

July 31, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
According to a new study, the best way for the U.S. Forest Service to counter skyrocketing firefighting costs may be a new fleet of water-scooping aircraft.

The study also found that the air tankers armed with fire-retardant the service currently uses are not as cost effective and should be replaced with the water scoopers - and that's the source of disagreement with many firefighters.

Forest Service hired the RAND Corporation to figure out how to best use its fleet of air tankers. RAND said scoopers are cheaper to use at about $2.8 million per year, compared with the high-capacity air tankers at $8.2 million. Also, it takes only about 13 minutes for scoopers to fill up at a body of water and return to a fire, compared with air tankers, which take about 45 minutes to land and refill with fire retardant.

While the study was for the Forest Service, other firefighting agencies question the findings.

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said the study doesn't properly value the importance of fire retardant versus water.

"Water evaporates very, very quickly out on the landscape, and it takes many, many return trips for a water-scooping aircraft to come back and drop on a fire to have any effectiveness on a larger fire," Pimlott said. "We want retardant that we can pre-treat the vegetation so that when the tanker comes back it keeps building a line based on the retardant that was put there previously."

The RAND study came at a cost of more than $750,000. Despite the recommendations, the Forest Service said that at this time it has no plans to replace retardant-dropping air tankers with water-dropping Super Scoopers.


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