As wildfire fear rises, US tanker fleet incomplete

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Smoke from a wildfire can bee seen in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Wednesday April 30, 2014. Schools and homes were evacuated Wednesday, as dry, gusty winds fanned a smoky wildfire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains in California. At least three schools were shut down due to the smoky conditions in parts of Rancho Cucamonga, a city of 165,000 people east of Los Angeles. (AP photo/John Antczak)

Smoke from a wildfire can bee seen in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Wednesday April 30, 2014. Schools and homes were evacuated Wednesday, as dry, gusty winds fanned a smoky wildfire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains in California. At least three schools were shut down due to the smoky conditions in parts of Rancho Cucamonga, a city of 165,000 people east of Los Angeles. (AP photo/John Antczak)

A woman who is evacuating her home carries a dog to a vehicle in smoke from the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The wildfire driven by surging Santa Ana winds sent a choking pall of smoke through foothill neighborhoods, forcing the evacuation of at least 1,650 homes and the closure of at least seven schools. No homes burned, but the smoke prompted mandatory evacuation orders for several areas of town nestled at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles. More than 500 firefighters battled the flames near this city of 165,000 people. The fire was reported about 8 a.m., grew to 200 acres by noon, quadrupled in size within a few hours and continued to grow as it roared through dry brush. (AP Photo/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Will Lester)

Smoke from a wildfire can bee seen in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Wednesday April 30, 2014. Schools and homes were evacuated Wednesday, as dry, gusty winds fanned a smoky wildfire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains in California. At least three schools were shut down due to the smoky conditions in parts of Rancho Cucamonga, a city of 165,000 people east of Los Angeles. (AP photo/John Antczak)

A resident talks on her phone as she watches the Etiwanda Fire in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The wildfire driven by surging Santa Ana winds sent a choking pall of smoke through foothill neighborhoods, forcing the evacuation of at least 1,650 homes and the closure of at least seven schools. No homes burned, but the smoke prompted mandatory evacuation orders for several areas of town nestled at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles. More than 500 firefighters battled the flames near this city of 165,000 people. The fire was reported about 8 a.m., grew to 200 acres by noon, quadrupled in size within a few hours and continued to grow as it roared through dry brush.(AP Photo/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Will Lester)

A firefighter sprays down brush as he battles a fire burning in Day Creek near the Etiwanda Preserve in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Fire officials say winds gusting to 60 mph are pushing the flames through the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, although no homes are in immediate danger. Several neighborhoods and at least seven schools in Rancho Cucamonga have been evacuated. There’s no word on what sparked the blaze but it comes in the midst of a heat wave that’s created extreme fire danger. (AP Photo/The Press-Enterprise, Stan Lim) MAGS OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — With a vast swath of the West primed for wildfires, federal foresters are preparing for the worst with a budget that might run dry and a fleet of air tankers that in some cases aren’t ready for takeoff.

A combination of extended drought, warming weather and an abundance of withered trees and grasses have created ideal conditions for fire — more than 22 million acres were blackened by wildfires from 2011-2013, primarily across the West.

“It looks like it’s going to be a serious enough season to where we run out of money again,” Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, warned in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I’m really concerned, there is no question,” Harbour said. “I think we are going to have a lot of fire.”

The agency is doing what it can to prepare for wildfire season by burning sections of forest in high-risk areas to remove dead or dry vegetation that could fuel a fire. In another step, crews will launch a major forest-thinning project on Lake Tahoe’s north shore.

In no place is the situation more worrisome than in California, where several years of stingy rainfall have turned forests and scrub into matchsticks and tens of thousands of homes are perched along fire-prone areas.

Firefighters battled a blaze in the mountains east of Los Angeles this week, where temperatures neared triple digits. And states from New Mexico through southern Oregon have been left sere by a lack of rain and snow.

But even as fire risk has increased in recent years, the number of large air tankers dropped.

About a decade ago the Forest Service had more than 40 of the big tankers at its disposal — the draft horses of firefighting aircraft that can dump thousands of gallons of flame-snuffing retardant in a single swoop, far more than a helicopter.

According to federal analysts, the fleet hit a low of eight aircraft at one point last year, depleted by age and concerns over the ability of the planes, in some cases flying since the dawn of the Cold War, to stay in the sky.

Deadly crashes — including when a 57-year-old tanker flew into the side of a Utah mountain in June 2012, killing the pilot and co-pilot — fanned doubts about safety. A federal investigation into the cause of that crash is incomplete.

The agency has been working for several years to

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