Another three tanker planes joined the aerial firefighting battle on Monday, as the U.S. Forest Service struggles to maintain its aging air force.

The active plane roster shrank from 11 to nine on June 3 when two Korean War-era P2V tankers crashed while fighting separate fires. Missoula-based Neptune Aviation Tanker 11 crashed just after dropping a load of retardant on the White Rock fire on the Utah-Nevada border, killing both pilot and co-pilot. The same day, a Minden Aviation tanker landed on two of its three landing gears, seriously damaging the plane but not injuring anyone. It was fighting the George fire in California.

The reinforcements come from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which is sending three CV-580 twin-engine air tankers. They are in addition to four planes added last week: two CV-580s from the Alaska state firefighting fleet and Canada; and two CAL FIRE S-2T airplanes that will operate out of California state bases.

Private contractor 10 Tanker Air Carrier of California has put its converted DC-10 jet on a “call-when-needed” contract for the fire season. That converted jetliner can carry 11,800 gallons of retardant. But it’s limited to fires on flat or gently rolling terrain in areas with airports big enough to land a jumbo jet, according to National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.

Another eight Air National Guard C-130 planes equipped with retardant tank inserts have been put on standby. But those planes and the DC-10 will have to wait for the fire activity to increase.

The additions are not part of a next-generation contract the Forest Service expects to release June 25. That contract spends about $508 million over five years for seven modern large air tankers, although not all of those may be available for this fire season.

So far, only Missoula-based Neptune Aviation has received an interim contract for a potential next-generation aircraft. Its BAe-146 jet tanker can drop 3,000 gallons of retardant. It has been active on the Whitewater-Baldy fire in New Mexico, currently the largest blaze in the nation at 278,000 acres.

The extra tankers augment the BAe and a fleet of eight P2V tankers, of which Neptune owns seven and Minden one.

On Monday, the Forest Service has also activated five type 1 heavy-lift helicopters earlier than planned this year.

The CV-580s are propeller-driven large air tankers that carry 2,100 gallons of retardant, roughly the same amount as the P2Vs. They were built between 1947 and 1954, as a potential competitor for the Douglas DC-3.

The S-2Ts were built in the 1950s and ’60s as anti-submarine warfare planes, and modified carry about 1,200 gallons of retardant.

About 4,000 firefighters, 62 helicopters and 16 air tankers are now active on more than 100 fires across the nation.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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