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Air tanker gets nod for Medford

The air tanker that flew out of Medford to help Oregon Department of Forestry crews battle last summer's wildfires appears to have been given the administrative nod to return as scheduled.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said he was assured Thursday by a top administration official during a Forest Health Subcommittee hearing that the tanker would be permitted to operate out of the Medford tanker base this summer.

The contracted DC-6B tanker is scheduled to be flown down from Alaska in mid to late July.

ODF officials expressed concern earlier this week they might lose the tanker after the National Transportation Safety Board concluded there was no method in place to adequately ensure the safety and airworthiness of the contracted tanker aircraft used by the Forest Service and Department of the Interior.

As a result, the agencies have terminated contracts for 33 large air tankers. The average age of the tankers is 48 years.

— But Mark Rey, the under secretary of natural resources and environment, told subcommittee chairman Walden the termination of those contracts will not effect the ODF tanker.

Moreover, Rey told Walden that additional ODF tankers would be allowed to use the base as a reload facility this summer, according to Walden's office.

With drought plaguing Oregon and much of the West and hazardous fuels continuing to accumulate on our national forestlands, it's essential that the Medford Air Tanker Base continue to function, Walden said in a prepared statement.

As the past two years have illustrated, this base serves as a critical staging point for the initial attack aircraft that successfully suppress and contain many small wildfires before they become catastrophic conflagrations like the (2002) Biscuit fire, he added.

Walden and other legislators will meet with top officials of the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration, Forest Service and Department of the Interior on Tuesday to discuss what can be done to return the nation's air tanker fleet to service in time for the summer fire season.

The NTSB study came after three tankers crashed between 1994 and 2002, killing seven crew members.

To offset the grounding, Forest Service and Department of Interior officials said they plan to rely more on helicopters and military C-130s to fight fires on national forestland.

Last month, the Oregon Legislative Emergency Board earmarked &

36;500,000 to pay for the ODF air tanker as well as helicopters to be deployed for the coming fire season. This will mark the second year the ODF air tanker, which is subcontracted from a Canadian firm, has been approved by the state board.

ODF firefighters protect private, county, state and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at