SACRAMENTO — Officials conceded Friday the crash of another federal fire-fighting plane will likely leave the U.S. Forest Service without an air-tanker fleet to fight western wildfires, broadening calls to accept Russia's offer to lend unique jet super-tankers as replacements.

Federal officials told The Argus that if the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Wednesday evening crash, finds it was due to a flaw common to all other P-3 Orions, the remaining six federally owned tankers would be grounded.

California owns a fleet of small, turboprop tankers that may be trimmed due to budget cuts. But the state's tankers can carry only 1,200 gallons to fight wildfires that ravage the state during the dry summer season.

But, the P-3 was one of only seven Orions left that can carry about 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, out of a once mighty but worn-out federal military-surplus fleet.

Two dozen other federal tankers of other types were grounded last year after structural flaws led to two planes breaking up in mid-air during drops. The remaining three, under contract to the Forest Service, are too dangerous to fly over residential areas.

"This is a very important issue," said NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners. "You have people whose jobs it is to save lives, and we don't want their lives at risk."

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Rose Davis said "it's a difficult place to be" until the NTSB finds a cause in the crash. A highly experienced crew was flying the P-3 on a routine retardant-drop training mission over familiar territory near Chico in Northern California.

"We don't know what the implications of this will be," said Dave Dash, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the other federal agency that contracts for some of the tankers.

Federal officials said they will have an adequate number of helicopters on hand and crop-duster-type aircraft. But independent government reports and firefighters say a mix of tools, including air tankers, are essential.

The U.S. government also can call on eight Air National Guard C-130s, but they must first be converted to air tankers and flown to where they are needed.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, a supporter of the Russian Ilyushin-76 Waterbomber, scheduled a news conference today in support of employing the 12,000-gallon tankers and to criticize the Forest Service.

The Forest Service has rejected the Russian plane, and even rejected Canadian fire-fighting planes until they recently hired two. They prefer to use a handful of private U.S. contractors, according to critics.

"Frankly, I'm outraged the Forest Service has refused to allow this (Russian) plane into this country for fire fighting," said Tom Robinson, a spokesman for the Virginia Offices of Fire Programs and Emergency Services.

Recent Argus reports on the 2005 condition of the federal fleet have triggered new investigations in Congress and by the Bush administration.

Contact Sacramento bureau chief Steve Geissinger by e-mailing him at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.