SACRAMENTO — Despite safety concerns about large, aging air tankers and recent mid-flight breakups, federal agencies said Thursday they are reinstating seven more previously grounded aircraft to battle what is expected to be a bad fire season throughout the West.

Officials at the Agriculture Department, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, said they have contracted to use a total of nine P2V tankers and seven P-3s, for a total fleet of 16 aircraft.

The number remains just over a third of the fleet the Forest Service fielded a few years ago, before the breakup of two of the retired military aircraft that had been converted to air tankers and the grounding of most of the planes as potentially unsafe.

Eight additional Air National Guard planes can be converted for air tanker use and U.S. agencies have bolstered its fleet of small, single-engine tankers and helicopters.

"We have an adequate aviation fleet for the work we need to do" this year, said Dan Jiron, the spokesman for the Agriculture Department, on a conference call.

On April 20, another air tanker — a P-3 — crashed near Chico, north of Sacramento, during a training flight, killing three aviators aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board has not ruled out structural or mechanical failure.

"Aerial firefighting is an inherently high-risk business," said Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who directs U.S. forest policy.


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"Our job is to minimize that risk."

Rey said routine inspections would be done to check "areas of particular concern," including the chances of "catastrophic metal fatigue" among parts of the aging aircraft.

Even so, the agencies acknowledged there are still concerns about the long-term viability of its aircraft. Officials are scrambling in efforts to evaluate newer planes that could be converted to large air tankers.

Federal wildfire forecasters say unusual rainfall patterns in the West this winter and spring have boosted growth of grasses and low-lying vegetation that will dry to fuel, setting the stage for a worse than normal fire season in West.

Contact Sacramento bureau

chief Steve Geissinger at

sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.