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Nation short on heavy airtankers with no easy fix

PHOENIX — While wildfires become more dangerous and larger with each passing year, the nation’s fleet of heavy firefighting air tankers has dropped from 44 to only 11.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to bringing the fleet up to full strength.

Rick Hatton with 10 Tanker in Southern California owns two former commercial DC-10 jetliners that are among the remaining heavy tankers that have been called to nearly every major fire in the west this summer, including the Doce Fire near Prescott and the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire that claimed the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. He said there’s plenty of aircraft in mothball status that could be retrofitted like his aircraft but it isn’t cheap and there’s no guarantee the U.S. Forest Service will contract the aircraft. Hatton said when it comes to airtankers, bigger is better.

“They have jet speed. They can get from one base to the next quickly and can carry the equivalent of five or more airplanes in the form of one”

Hatton said it takes years to develop the tranformation of a commercial jetliner into firefighting airtanker and costs run in the tens of millions of dollars.

“The source of the bottleneck isn’t a shortage of planes available,” he said. “The problem is attracting private capitol and the risk of developing something and not getting it contracted is quite high and you’re then stuck with a machine that you’ve invested in that won’t give you any type of a payback. It’s difficult to get a contract before you have a product and, if I were running the Forest Service, I wouldn’t give a contract for something than I didn’t know either.”

Hatton said his DC-10s have been so successful that he’s adding a third to his fleet.