BOISE -- We are on the doorstep of fire season but the U.S. Forest Service says right now they do not have enough of a key piece of firefighting equipment.
Firefighters say air tankers are very important in suppressing large wildfires, especially in the initial attack. They drop fire retardant to slow the fire down and make it less intense. But right now there are a lot fewer available. So few, that last year a quarter of all requests for air tankers were turned down or got canceled. In 2012, half of all orders went unfilled.
A decade ago, the Forest Service had around 40 air tankers available at any time nationwide. Last year they had just nine available at any time. While they hope to have 17 available by June, right now they just 10 tankers ready to fly.
Jennifer Jones with the Forest Service points out though that that's just 10 tankers on exclusive use contracts. That means they're available at a moment's notice. But, about 17 other large aircraft can be brought in from Canada, Alaska, or the military, if they're really needed. We do have the ability to supplement that large air tanker fleet.
Also, Jones says the newer tankers are much more effective, meaning, they need fewer of them. So they're rushing to retrofit more tankers.
But Jones says during peak season when they might have 100 fires burning at once, they can never have enough of any resource. In those cases what we do is prioritize those assets, so that fires that are threatening lives, homes, infrastructure, or important natural or cultural resources, will receive the assets first. Then everyone else gets them as quickly as possible.
And while Jones again admits they need more tankers. She says they aren't the most important tool in fighting wildfires, firefighters are. Tankers are so visible. That's what people see. They see planes flying. They see bright red retardant dropping from the sky. What they don't see are those thousands of boots on the ground. And that's really how wildfires are suppressed.
But Jones says the best way to fight fires is to not start them. According to the Forest Service, the vast majority of wildfires are human-caused.