SACRAMENTO — From the father of aerial firefighting to pilots who recently flew through tornadoes of fiery debris in Southern California, aviators are saying the U.S. firefighting fleet is undergoing fundamental, long-term changes that may cost extra lives and homes — especially in this populous state.

The shift by federal agencies from troubled, aging big air tankers toward more helicopters and single-engine planes — rather than finding new large air tankers — is based on faulty fiscal conclusions and flawed accident statistics, according to several pilots breaking a 50-year-old code of silence following Oakland Tribune reports.

The Aerial Firefighting Industry Association, which represents 15 firms that supply

planes, maintenance and pilots to government agencies, also is touting a decade-old National Air Tanker Study that showed an overwhelming benefit-to-cost ratio for big air tankers and envisioned a fleet of 41 modern aircraft by now.

The fray developed after crashes blamed on worn-out, retired military planes and safety groundings that have left the once mighty, 33-plane big tanker force at less than a third of its strength.

Pilots say they have remained silent, until now, because of a military-like code of silence and the implied threat of harsh retribution.

Aviators, who fly under contract for the U.S.


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government, say helicopters and small tankers can't replace the role of big air tankers, aren't less expensive by some yardsticks and also suffer high crash rates.

Pilots say the data is contained in the government's own reports.

"We have an industry in transition but without a known destination yet," said Robert Fish of Associated Airtanker Pilots, a group that represents the tight-knit, small community of aviators.

"Joe Ely, a U.S. Forest Service fire control officer who first used air attack on fires in 1955 in Mendocino, told me last year that fires require many tools — big planes with lots of retardant for project (large, stubborn) fires, smaller planes to handle the initial-attack requirements and helicopters for spot fires," Fish said.

After the first drop, Ely said, "a ranger said it was a real help and an editorial headline declared, 'Aerial Firewagon Vital Development.'

"And sure enough, the next summer we had seven air tankers ready to go and by the following summer, they were all over California. The more air tankers we could support, the more fires we could help control," he said.

Queries about the assertions of pilots and air tanker contractors, directed to experts at U.S. agencies, were referred to media representatives, who reiterated assurances from top U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials that the fleet will remain as effective, if not more so.

In recent days, top officials at the agencies have largely squelched congressional concerns and discounted a handful of outspoken politicians as extremists. Higher Bush administration officials have referred queries back to the agencies.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said he does not believe the reduction in big tankers will affect the agency's firefighting efforts this summer. "What we've done is make up the difference with helicopters," he said.

But contract pilots cite a December 2004 U.S. Department of Interior report that concludes helicopters and small air tankers — all things considered — have accident rates and mechanical problems at nearly the same rate as big tankers.

Walt Darran, a member of the Associated Airtanker Pilots Safety Committee and chairman of the California Fire Pilots Association Safety Committee, said "air tanker safety is a very complicated and frustrating issue."

"Almost everyone involved focuses on a different perspective and arrives at different numbers and rates," he said.

There are myriad dangers in aerial firefighting, other than mechanical failures and fire conditions. During the 2003 Southern California infernos, for instance, pilots coped with smoke, wind shear and debris such as kids' play pools and full sheets of plywood careening past them at 1,500 feet.

More crashes, however, have occurred due to "the effects of cheap, inappropriate equipment; minimal training and maintenance; low pay; insecure jobs; a nomadic lifestyle; and abusive management practices by both agencies and contractors," Darran said.

Since 1992, when the crash of the state's chief firefighting pilot drew the attention of a news agency, CDF has invested $70 million in upgrades and hired a contractor to fly and maintain the aircraft on par with airline standards, according to pilots.

Crashes also now are being investigated by the National Transportation and Safety Board rather than being left solely to the agency.

Aviators point out CDF is committed to a mix of tankers and helicopters, unlike the federal firefighting agencies.

For the foreseeable future, "CDF is the point of the spear in attacking legacy problems in the air tanker program," Darran said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to reverse a budget cut in deficit-plagued California that would have grounded some of the CDF planes this year.

Overall in the industry, "aggressive leadership and competent management will be required to overcome bureaucratic legacy thinking and practices, and to procure adequate funding and support from lawmakers to allow us to provide the public with the protection it wants," said Darran.

"A pile of scrap aluminum on a hillside can't help protect lives and property from wildfires."

Contact Sacramento bureau chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.