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GAO: Delays blamed for wildfire air tanker shortages

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WASHINGTON (CBS5) -

A new report released by the General Accountability Office says the U.S. Forest Service is well aware that the number of available air tankers to fight wildfires is dwindling.

The federal government's large air tanker fleet has dropped from 44 aircraft in 2002 to about eight this year. [Related: Read the full GAO report (PDF)]

The GAO said it blames bureaucracy and bidding problems for the delays in getting a new fleet.

There's been a lack of oversight on the entire process, including not budgeting properly for the new fleet's operating costs, the report stated.

In addition, the report finds the air tankers that have ordered to replace the aging fleet have never been fully tested and approved for actually fighting wildfires.

Since 1995, federal agencies have produced nine different studies on air tankers with varying recommendations and conclusions about the right composition and size of the wildfire aircraft fleet.

The report also stated federal agencies need to do a better job of recording missions and measuring the effectiveness of different types of aircraft in dropping retardant. The GAO notes that the Forest Service says it could take many years and hundreds of missions in different terrain conditions to analyze each aircraft's unique strengths and weaknesses.

In the wake of the report, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) released the following statement:

"We applaud the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for its sensible recommendation that federal agencies must coordinate when updating their needs-based wildfire aircraft plans. A shared strategic vision should be developed and acted upon as rapidly as possible considering that the current large air tanker fleet has dropped from 44 aircraft in 2002 to about eight this year.

"Nationwide, but especially in states like Arizona, the number and severity of wildfires is expected to increase. Therefore, it is vitally important that the Forest Service, in coordination with the Department of the Interior, articulate the current strategic posture of the air tanker fleet around the country. These agencies should work together to quickly establish the strategic requirement for air tankers nationwide, assess what combination of assets would best satisfy that requirement, and jointly determine how such a fleet should be most effectively deployed around the country to help ensure the protection of persons and property.

"The last thing we need is to study this issue indefinitely. There have already been nine different studies on air tankers since 1995 and GAO notes it could be years before enough data is collected to fully analyze each aircraft's performance capabilities. Americans deserve better than to hear that more research is needed while wildfires destroy their homes and firefighters risk their lives. Federal agencies need to implement options that improve our wildfire fighting capabilities immediately."

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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