SACRAMENTO — The shrinking, worn-out federal tanker fleet meant to attack western wildfires grew smaller Thursday after another plane crashed, killing three, amid safety probes launched this week by the Bush administration and in Congress due to Oakland Tribune reports.

Now, with only nine of 23 planes supposedly safe enough to fly this summer, the crash posed new questions that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein will take to a Senate panel next week, gave added urgency to an administration review and prompted a California congressman to call for a program overhaul that would base Russian air tankers in the United States.

U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher,

R-Huntington Beach, wants to accept the Russian government's offer to temporarily loan massive Russian jets, Ilyushin-76 Waterbombers, and base some in California while they prove themselves.

The modern, four-engine jet cancover an area the size of 12 football fields with one 10-second drop of 11,000 gallons, creating a fireline 300 feet wide and 3,900 feet long. That's about four times the capacity of the biggest U.S. tankers.

Rohrabacher was already planning to schedule a Saturday news conference on fleet safety issues when the crash of a federally contracted P-3 Orion air tanker, which has fought California fires in recent years, came Wednesday evening during a training flight near Chico.


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"This heightens the concern we have that the people responsible are not doing their job," said Rohrabacher aide Don Ernsberger.

At the same time, state budget cuts threaten to trim the 23-plane, California-owned fleet by three planes. Together, the developments could leave holes in air coverage that would allow more small fires to become firestorms in California, according to experts.

Rohrabacher plans Saturday to demand drastic steps, including importation of Russian jet air tankers, even though they are costly and must operate over fairly flat terrain.

For years, use of the Russian planes and aircraft from Canada, such as the SuperScoopers employed by Los Angeles County, has been blocked by the U.S. Forest Service in favor of using small American contractors and aging, dwindling U.S. military-surplus planes.

The entire 23-plane fleet was grounded in 2002 after two planes broke apart in the air during retardant drops. Less than a third has been certified for use again.

A blue-ribbon federal commission concluded, among other things, the Forest Service uses a flawed contract system that lacks full federal aviation agency oversight and that the aircraft do not have some safety devices common to aviation.

The Forest Service said Thursday it plans to rely more heavily on helicopters and small crop-duster-type planes, as well as arrange for use of a couple SuperScoopers that can pick up water from lakes or the ocean.

"We're using helicopters more and more, and they are usually better," said Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes. "We do not feel there is any crisis whatsoever this summer."

But independent government reports have concluded a mix of aircraft, including an adequate number of air tankers, are needed for proper firefighting.

The developments also come at a time when homeland security officials are concerned terrorists could use arson to ravage an arid location such as California.

Feinstein, who will query officials Tuesday about the woes during a Senate public lands and forest subcommittee hearing, dispatched a letter citing Tribune reports this week to the secretary of the agency that oversees the Forest Service, Mike Johanns of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I ask that you personally review the situation and see what can be done to ensure that there is sufficient aerial firefighting equipment available this summer," Feinstein said.

A secretary said that a spokesman for Johanns was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

The P-3 Orion that crashed Wednesday evening, a four-decade-old Navy submarine chaser, was on the last of seven routine training missions when it went down in Lassen National Forest near Chico without a distress call. 

The cause of the crash after a practice fire retardant drop was under investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board.

Aero Union, a Chico-based company, owns the plane that was slated to be under federal contract this summer.

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at

sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.