Air tankers on way to Nevada, California
RENO – Two of five firefighting air tankers cleared to return to service after being grounded over safety concerns are headed for Nevada and California, federal officials said Saturday.
The planes are expected to be stationed out of Battle Mountain, located about 220 miles northeast of Reno, and Lancaster, Calif., Bureau of Land Management officials said.
“With only five of the tankers initially going back to service, it was a tough decision on where to station them,” said BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson in Reno. “They’re being spaced out across the West to provide the best geographic coverage with limited availability.”
The other three planes, former Navy P-3 Orions owned by California-based Aero Union Corp., are expected to be stationed out of Fairbanks, Alaska; Moses Lake, Wash.; and Prescott, Ariz., BLM officials said.
Simpson said the U.S. Forest Service was in the final stages of signing contracts for the five planes on Saturday, a day after federal officials said they are safe to fly.
They were among 33 planes grounded in May by BLM and Forest Service officials, who cited safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people.
Three crew members were killed when the wings broke off their plane while they were trying to make a retardant drop in Walker, Calif., 80 miles south of Reno.
Top officials in Western states pressed officials to reconsider their decision, saying the air tankers are vital to firefighting efforts. The planes can dump up to 3,000 gallons of chemical and water-based retardant.
Without the air tankers, federal officials have been relying more on smaller single-engine air tankers and helicopters.
The five planes returning to service – mostly military surplus – will be used wherever needed.
“Having a tanker stationed out of Battle Mountain will benefit all the wildland firefighting agencies in the Great Basin,” a swath of land covering most of Nevada and Utah, said Kevin Hull, BLM chief of fire and aviation in Nevada.
A prolonged drought has dried out much of the West, increasing fire danger for the Fourth of July weekend.
Fire restrictions are in effect for much of the West, and officials are urging public cooperation.
“We want you to enjoy yourselves this summer, but please help us to protect your public land and yourselves,” said BLM Nevada State Director Bob Abbey.