Our View: Act now to protect our aerial firefighters
In the aftermath of the recent Reno air tanker crash that killed her cousin, Teri Busick aptly described the work of a firefighting pilot as a brutally dangerous job, probably the most dangerous in the country.Unfortunately, that assessment has been made several times over the course of two decades, a timespan covering several deaths, intense criticism from the public, and official admittance that a decrepit fleet of planes is what protects lives and properties from wildfires across the West.The U.S. Forest Service could resolve the situation through very simple steps, and now is the time. Due to an ongoing drought cycle, fire danger in the West elevates each year decisively, putting more lives in danger. The Forest Service must take steps to increase the safety of the valiant pilots and crew who take on this dangerous job, and those underneath the flight paths of the planes.According to the Associated Press, 27 people have died in the crashes of Forest Service-owned or Forest Service-contracted air tankers since 1991.Twenty-eight of the planes have crashed between 2002 and 2006, according to an assessment by the Scripps Howard News Service.Given the frequency of the deaths of its aerial firefighters, the Forest Services assurances of a a safety plan and stepped-up inspections are falling woefully short of acting in the publics best interest.The agencys stubborn refusal to allow the Federal Aviation Administration (which, it must be pointed out, has a fairly good safety record) any oversight is simply a game of bureaucratic posturing.When lives are at stake, bureaucracy and posturing are unacceptable.Some solutions may be simple. According to several experts, the aging fleet of warplanes many of them in excess of 40 years old are outliving their operational lifetime.A cap on the age of firefighting aircraft could be a simple way to ensure planes are not crashing simply because they are being flown well past their safe age limit.Allowing the Federal Aviation Administration a role in the assessing the safety of the planes is easy logic, given that federal investigators noted that the Forest Service possesses neither the technical information nor the expertise to assess its firefighting aircrafts airworthiness, according to a Scripps Howard article written earlier this year.While we do not know the exact cause of the Reno air tanker crash that took the lives of three people, we do know that too many brave firefighters die each season while flying to wildfires across the West, and the planes are far from safe.Every effort should be made to protect those who risk their lives each fire season. We know Teri Busick and her grieving family agree, but for them its already too late.
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