Firefighters Worried Over Grounding of Air Tankers

Firefighters Worried Over Grounding of Air Tankers

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CEDAR CITY, Utah (AP) -- The federal decision to terminate the contract for 33 large air tankers used to fight wildfires has southern Utah fire officials worried how they will handle this summer's blazes.

"We're going someplace we haven't had to deal with in my 20-some-odd years of doing this," said Larry LaForte, fire management officer for the Utah Division of Forestry's southwest area. "I've never been faced with not having an air tanker. It was always a case of 'It will be here.' Now, it will be 'It's not coming.'

"The engines and crews are very apprehensive because they've always had extra eyes in the sky, an extra load of fire retardant that could be dropped," he said.

The aging heavy tankers were grounded after three crashes in the last two years.

Some of the tankers had been based at Cedar City Regional Airport, but now southern Utah will have only one firefighting helicopter, due to come into service on June 15, and possibly, a smaller, single-engine air tanker later this summer.

"We're the hub of this area," said Joe Lopour, the Bureau of Land Management tanker base manager in Cedar City. "We served northern Arizona, most of the eastern part of Nevada and southern Utah. The next closest tanker base is Hill Air Force Base, but they don't open until July 15. We were supposed to open by May 15 to satisfy (aerial fire suppression efforts for) Nevada. I'm not sure exactly what is happening now."

The decision also will have an impact on the Cedar City economy.

Airport manager Steve Farmer said the city normally collects up to $15,000 each year in landing fees for the heavy tankers and nearly that amount in the tax levied on fuel sold at the airport.

"The big tankers take about 50 percent of the fuel sold at the airport every year," Farmer said. "Plus, there are the people who sell the fuel, the other tenants at the airport who sell services, the hotels in town where these crews would stay, the restaurants where they would eat. They will all suffer in addition to the city."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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