SACRAMENTO — Federal firefighting officials were unable to answer many questions fired at them by U.S. senators Tuesday about the future of the government's air-tanker fleet because, the agencies conceded, they are awash in uncertainties after the latest crash.

But Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey did acknowledge that the U.S. Forest Service is being forced to re-evaluate its plan to pin the future of the fleet on acquiring additional P-3s, like the one that crashed in Northern California last Wednesday.

The development comes even though the planes are the only U.S. military-surplus aircraft available and are relatively inexpensive to convert to tankers, officials said.

The congressional hearing in Washington followed U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's call for the Agriculture Depart-ment, which oversees the Forest Service, to review the situation after the Oakland Tribune reported the agencies were able to field only seven big, unrestricted air tankers this summer.

Then one of those federally contracted planes crashed near Chico, killing three aviators.

The Forest Service was able to put a contracted fleet of 33 big air tankers in the air until two broke up in mid-air, prompting the force to be grounded last year. The crashes of those two aging military-surplus aircraft, which weren't P-3s, was blamed on structural weakness.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the latest crash, has ruled nothing out.


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"As we look at where to go going forward, we were leaning and may still yet lean toward acquiring additional P-3s, because the military has a number of Orion P-3s that can be resurrected at a reasonable cost and used as the backbone of a larger tanker fleet in conjunction with all the other aviation assets," Rey told a hearing of the Senate Energy Committee's subcommittee on public lands and forests.

Rey said it would take months to make a final decision as officials await NTSB findings.

Senators said they were concerned about the situation in light of the coming fire season.

"We had this tragic air crash in California last week, and I guess I'm very unclear in my own mind about what the plan is with regard to the air-tanker situation in both the short term and long term," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "I had sort of thought we were on the way to getting that fixed, but I guess my information was erroneous."

Rey told lawmakers that whatever the decision about acquiring more P-3s, the government would have adequate resources for the 2005 fire season. The Forest Service intends to use additional helicopters and contract for smaller tankers.

Federal officials said the government's longer-term plan is to assemble a firefighting fleet dependent more on helicopters and less on the large, fixed-wing tankers that can drop huge amounts of fire retardant on blazes.

Federal firefighting officials continue to show no interest in aircraft offered by the Russian government and an Oregon company as replacements.

Wire services contributed to this report.