DENVER - The U.S. Forest Service released its long-awaited strategy Friday for replacing its wildfire-fighting fleet of aging heavy air tankers with ones that are newer, faster and more cost-effective, though it's unclear how quickly those multimillion-dollar planes will come on line.

Its current fleet is owned and operated by private contractors, but the agency said it's possible the government could own some planes in the future.

"That's an option," said Jim Hubbard, the U.S. Forest Service's deputy chief for state and private forestry. "We're looking for the best value."

The agency uses a mix of aircraft, including single-engine air tankers and helicopters, to support firefighters on the ground. But its fleet of 11 heavy air tankers that drop slurry over fires is at least 50 years old. More than half face mandatory retirement within 10 years.

The Forest Service said Friday that the next generation of heavy tankers should be powered by turbine engines rather than piston engines that are less reliable and less fuel efficient. They should have a minimum cruise speed of 345 mph and be able to carry at least 1,800 gallons of mixed retardant without having to return to a base, the agency said.

The planes also must be able to meet Forest Service contract structural integrity program requirements.

"We need a core fleet of the next generation large air tankers to supplement our boots-on-the-ground firefighters for what we know will be longer and more severe wildfire seasons in years to come," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a written statement.

In 2004, the Forest Service grounded 33 air tankers following questions about whether several types were safe. That encouraged contractors and others to think about what their replacements should look like.

"We applaud the Forest Service for releasing this strategy," said Nelson Litterst, a representative for current Forest Service contractor Minden Air Corp. "It gives contractors some direction as they're developing the next generation of firefighting aircraft."

Minden Air Corp. and Missoula's Neptune Aviation Services have been looking at using a BAe-146, designed for mountain flying and available for around $7 million to $8 million.

By contrast, C-130s, which the Forest Service occasionally borrows from the military to fight wildfires, are around $70 million, Hubbard said.

Meanwhile, 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC is offering its DC-10 jets. Already the company has flown more than 400 missions on more than 70 fires, including 62 days of firefighting for the Forest Service last year under a "call when needed" contract, said company President and CEO Rick Hatton. It plans to bid for more contracts.

"We're offering probably the largest airplane that's in this hunt. That may be outside the so-called target they've established, but we believe there's merit to that. Size should not be a negative. It can do the work of multiple airplanes that are smaller," Hatton said.

Hubbard said the look of the nation's new firefighting fleet will depend on how much money is available for modernization and what the private sector can do.

"We'll probably have a mixed fleet of different airplanes to meet our needs," Hubbard said.

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