Gibbons: "Scathing rebuke" of USFS planes warrants more review

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RENO -- An independent panel's "scathing rebuke" of the Forest Service's aerial firefighting fleet underscores the need for an overdue review of the nation's overall wildland firefighting effort, Rep. Jim Gibbons said.

"I think we are going to have to have a complete top-to-bottom review of how we allocate dollars to fight fires," the Nevada Republican said Monday.

"We are not going to let this go quietly into the night. We are going to continue to press this issue," he said.

Gibbons was among those who urged the Forest Service to investigate its aerial program after a C-130A airtanker crashed in the Sierra in June, killing all three crew members. A month later, another airtanker owned by the same contractor, Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Wyoming, sent two crew members to their death while fighting a fire in Colorado.

"You cannot blame the families of these men for being outraged. They have a right to be upset," Gibbons said Monday.

The agency's blue ribbon panel issued a report Friday citing numerous safety concerns and the Forest Service responded by permanently grounding 11 aircraft and temporarily grounding many others pending a safety review.

One expert told the panel "from an engineering perspective, there is no assurance that any of the old military aircraft currently in operation are safe to fly as airtankers. ...

"In the panel's view, the fatal airtanker crashes this year were predictable," the report said.

Gibbons, a former combat pilot in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars who has flown C-130s, said on Friday he found the report to be "a blistering indictment" of the program with "safety deficiencies at virtually every level of the program's operation.

"Beyond the mere safety issues of the aircraft and those who fly them, the report contends that the aerial firefighting program does not effectively and efficiently do what it is supposed to do -- fight fires," he said.

Upon further review, Gibbons said Monday he was surprised by the amount of work the panel was able to complete since it was created in August.

"I did not expect the degree of clarity of the problem to be outlined in such a short investigation," Gibbons said.

"This report is literally a scathing rebuke of the aerial firefighting problems within the U.S. government and private contractors. If they could find so many problems within such a short period of time, we are going to have a long row to hoe to get the program working efficiently and effectively," he said.

"We in Congress are going to have to look very seriously at the funding and how we allocate various resources to agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management," he said.

Federal agencies have spent an estimated $1.4 billion to fight fires that burned about 6.7 million acres this year. Gibbons said all indications are that big fire years will continue in the near future.

"For far too long, the nation's aerial firefighting program has been treated as a financial stepchild," he said.

"The entire program is underfunded. It is shortsighted, penny-wise and pound foolish."


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