U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden intends to hold the U.S. Forest Service's feet to the fire to increase its fleet of large air tankers under contract.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden intends to hold the U.S. Forest Service's feet to the fire to increase its fleet of large air tankers under contract.

"The forest fires are getting bigger and the air tanker fleet is getting smaller," said Wyden, D-Ore., during a news conference Tuesday morning at the Medford air tanker base. "That has left us with some enormous challenges. We've already seen some big fires in Arizona and Colorado.

"Despite the enormity of all this, the agency that is most responsible for fighting them, the Forest Service, has allowed the air tanker fleet to shrink," he said.

The agency had 44 large air tankers under contract in 2006 but now has only 11, said Wyden, chairman of the Senate Forestry Committee.

"And 10 of those average 50 years of age," Wyden added. "So we have some of these planes that are getting to the point where they belong in museums rather than the sky."

The Democrat and other senators in the West, including Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are pushing the agency to modernize the fleet as quickly as possible.

"We now have to deal with an agency back in Washington, D.C., that, in my view, continues to deny the enormity of this problem," he said.

"It has had its head in the sand on this."

Fortunately, the agency does have access to helicopter aviation through companies such as Erickson Air-Crane Inc. in Central Point and Croman Corp. in White City, said Wyden who made his comments while standing in front of an Erickson Air-Crane heavy-lift helicopter,

"But the core fleet of the large air tankers — the planes needed to assist on-the-ground firefighters with the critical and initial attack — is going down," he said.

In the past, the Forest Service has been able to suppress 98 percent of the wildfires on its national forest land through initial attack, he said.

"But the remaining 2 percent of the fires account for about 85 percent of total wildland fire spending," he said.

Dan Thorpe, forester in charge of the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District, agreed with Wyden's analysis.

"The fleets have gone down," Thorpe said. "Oregon has been hard-pressed to replace it. We spend about a million dollars a year to contract two tankers that have to take the place of those several that have been removed from service by the federal agencies.

"That is a million dollars we wouldn't have to spend," he said, added. "We believe the air tanker fleet is probably best managed when it is full from a federal perspective."

A fully staffed fleet could then move around the nation where it is most needed at the time, he said.

"We appreciate him pushing the issue forward," Thorpe said. The district will have an air tanker at the Medford tanker base in July, he added later, noting its arrival depends on the weather.

The lack of a federal fixed-wing air tanker fleet needs to be fixed fast, said David Ford, Erickson vice president.

"We are already starting behind," Ford said. "If we don't get some action, and get it fairly soon, we are going to be in a position where we won't be able to respond if things come up."

Erickson fire manager Pat Pilolla agreed.

"The problem here is we've all reached a critical mass," he said, although noting that with enough time and resources the firms could make up the difference.

The firm currently operates 17 heavy-lift helicopters, of which 14 are assigned to fight fires everywhere from the states to Australia, he said. In addition, Erickson also manufactures firefighting helicopters, he added.

"Everything should be out there working and we should be making payroll for the community," he said of the company's heavy helicopters.

"When you are talking $30 million for a piece of equipment like that, once it comes off the line, she has got to go to work," he said, referring to the Sikorsky Skycranes.

"I can't build on spec," he said, referring to building a helicopter based on speculated need. "And most private agencies can't."

Croman representative Brian Beattie, noting that his firm has a squadron of nine heavy-lift helicopters in the form of Sikorsky S-61s, concurred.

"Nobody is going to sit around for free," he said. "We all have payroll and everything else. If you do sit around on speculation, the day you do get work you have to charge them a whole lot more to cover the days you didn't work."

Yet he noted the Forest Service has been increasing its contracted heavy-lift helicopter fleet.

"I remember when they contracted with the first Type One helicopter," he said. "Now they have 34 on contract. That's a huge move in the right direction.

"Over 90 percent of the heavy-lift helicopters in the world come from companies based in Oregon," he added. "It is truly an Oregon industry."

Modernizing the fleet could include more helicopters as well as more tankers, Wyden suggested.

"We've got to have fresh strategy to move with more urgency to deal with a problem that we as Oregonians and Westerners know is not some kind of abstract condition," he stressed.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.