DENVER – Air Force tanker planes returned to the flight line for firefighting missions on Tuesday after a deadly weekend crash, bringing much-needed reinforcements to a strained fleet battling some of the worst wildfires in decades.
The return of five C-130s means wildfire managers now have 19 heavy tankers to battle the huge fires that have burned hundreds of square miles and displaced thousands of people across the West.
One wildfire in Montana has charred more than 290 square miles and burned 16 homes. The fire was 55 percent contained.
The most active part of the fire was burning thick, largely inaccessible timber on the Custer National Forest. That has led firefighters to steer clear of the dangerous forward edge of the blaze, fire information officer Kathy Bushnell said.
In Wyoming, erratic winds have spread a wildfire across 128 square miles in a sparsely populated area since it started June 27.
“We’ve had this fire push north, push south, push east and push west at various times,” fire spokesman Jim Whittington said.
The Air Force had sidelined its seven remaining firefighting C-130s to review safety procedures after a C-130 from the North Carolina National Guard crashed Sunday, killing four crew members and injuring the other two. The plane was helping fight a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates wildfire-fighting efforts nationwide, said 45 large fires were burning on Tuesday.
The C-130s can be called into firefighting duty if all the civilian heavy tankers are in use or unavailable. The C-130s are loaded with a system of pressurized tanks and pumps that can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant within seconds.