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Medford air tanker base to get upgrade, but many planes remain grounded for safety reasons

The good news is that the &

36;1.2 million needed to upgrade the Medford air tanker base is in the bank as part of the Congressional omnibus budget bill.

The bad news?

The U.S. Forest Service grounded many of its aging tankers in the West following crashes last year of two air firefighting bombers in California and Colorado. The largest tankers will be out of commission until they pass safety inspections.

However, the goal is to get the planes back online by the start of fire season in Western Oregon, according to an agency official.

Plane availability does remain an issue, acknowledged 2nd Congressional District Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River. Walden led the fight in Congress to include funding for an upgrade of the tanker base in the bill expected to be signed soon by President Bush.

Having lost two tankers and with a bunch of them grounded, the next phase is to see what kind of tanker availability is there, Walden added following a cake-cutting celebration at the base late Tuesday morning.

Without the tanker base, the availability of planes would have been a moot point, said Walden. He has stressed that closing the local tanker base would have meant the loss of critical response time from tankers, which would have to fly from Klamath Falls to battle wildfires in Jackson and Josephine counties.

The Forest Service announced in 1999 that it planned to close the base because of budget concerns and move all operations to the Klamath Falls base.

Following a public outcry led by local residents, including commissioners from Jackson and Josephine counties, the agency agreed to keep it open as a reload base where tankers would fly in as needed.

The upgrade was part of the requirements the agency stipulated in a partnership effort worked out with local officials and the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Now we will at least be in play to have one come in if we need it, Walden said. Without this, they are coming out of Klamath. That can make the difference between getting one (fire) out or letting one get away.

But I've been assured they can move them pretty rapidly into an area, and they can stage them in different places, depending where the greatest threat of fire is, he added.

Only the fleet's small, single-engine tankers are currently available in the West, according to Jerry Williams, assistant director for fire operations for the agency in Oregon and Washington.

The agency grounded 11 of its larger tankers permanently, and temporarily took the remaining 31 large aircraft out of the system pending inspection approval, he said. The inspections focus on cracks in the wings and superstructure, he said.

But all indications are that they will be online by fire season, Williams said.

Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker is optimistic the tankers will be available come fire season.

It certainly is a problem right now, he said. But we're still not sure whether we have a shortage of the kind of planes that fly on the west side of the Cascades.

None of the aircraft carrying retardant out of the Medford base last year was a C-130A or PBY-4, the type that crashed early last summer in California and Colorado, killing all five crew members aboard.

They keep saying we have less planes, he said. But, if you have less planes, the more you need a quick turn-around from this base.

Jeff Schwanke, forester in charge of ODF's southwestern Oregon district, noted that wildfires in recent years have demonstrated the importance of the base.

An aerial attack on a wildfire can save taxpayer money as well as homes in the urban interface, observed Jackson County Commissioner Sue Kupillas, who worked with Walker to preserve the base.

I did not think this could be accomplished, she said. I did not believe it could be done.

In his remarks at the celebration, Walden cited the community effort, particularly Walker.

Jack is the kind of guy that when he sinks his teeth into something, you just hope it's not your leg, Walden quipped.

Air tankers have been flying out of the local base each fire season since the 1950s. They historically respond to fires from the Cascade Mountains to the coast, and from Roseburg to just beyond Yreka, Calif.

Last year, they dumped about 440,000 gallons of fire retardant on wildfires. That is about the average amount for a fire season, officials said.

Andrew Cardinal, right, a firefighter with the Oregon Department of Forestry, seems not to know how to handle a giant federal check presented to the Medford air tanker base by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, left, Tuesday morning. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli