Would Firefighting Planes Have Helped Doomed Firemen?

Investigation reveals six air tankers requested in Arizona fire that killed 19 hotshot firemen.
7:42 | 09/11/13

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Transcript for Would Firefighting Planes Have Helped Doomed Firemen?
We think of firefighting we most often think in the -- boots on the ground heading in neighboring buildings are perilous terrain to save lives and extinguish flames. But for the biggest -- the ones that threaten entire communities and swaths of land. Help -- to come from the air as well. But the US Forest Service says they just don't have enough -- to do the job and the ones they do have a relics from the time of the Korean War. ABC's Brian Ross investigates. It has been a decade of unrelenting wild fires in a vicious cycle of drought. Millions of acres burned thousands of homes destroyed. Some 200 firefighters -- this has been ongoing for really from about the last ten years speech here seems to get worse and worse. With the fire now raging north of San Francisco and the fire that went through Yosemite two weeks ago. This year may become the worst of all. According to the federal official in charge of fighting the fires chief Tom -- well. Of the United States Forest Service and we're having just tremendous problems being able to control being able to suppress the fires were happiness here. And for the firefighters on the ground including the so called smoke jumpers and hot shot there. The ability to call in reinforcements from the -- has never been more critical. Yet at ABC news investigation has found that even as the number of fires has dramatically increase over the last decade. Officials in Washington. While the fleet of large firefighting tankers to shrink dramatically by 75%. To 44 planes available just ten years ago. A move that firefighting officials say has put lives at risk. How many air tankers do you have available on and -- Wednesday. Right now eleven to the million a lot more fires we do you have more fires a drought cycle yes it is unrelenting. Yes is that really enough. It's eleven is not enough. The impact of the -- fleet and the value of those aircraft. It was clear -- one of this year's big bucks the mountain ridge fire near Palm Springs, California. The fire has been burning now for more than 24 hours on 101000 acres have been scorched. It's one of the biggest fires in this area in thirty years -- both state and federal firefighting aircraft have been brought in to fight the fire. Helicopters dumping water directly on the fire. The aircraft tankers dropping fire retardant that -- material. Sets up -- line to stop the fire in its tracks. It's like a military combat operations. Spotter planes overhead but didn't find the target the hot spots. And then they guiding in the air tankers flying low through smoke and rough terrain. To drop the load of fire retardant chemicals and set up a kind of know -- -- The more that we get dropped with those ground crews or or does -- come -- below. Is gonna make the difference in us getting that perimeter line contained the planes hitting the mountain ridge fire were flying out of the nearby airbase. Where we saw firsthand another huge problem. Of the few planes still -- some of the aircraft are fifty years old or older. Military submarine -- going back to the Korean War. Like museum pieces still an active duty but it's no secret to the US Forest Service which is -- on notice. Since this 2002 report and eight others after it that it's big aircraft tankers were badly aging and should be replaced. The first report on the need to upgrade the fleet was in 2002. This is 2013. You still don't have the new planes what's been going on -- last eleven years. We've been moving forward with film -- in their craft that we had and in some cases that has led to more tragedy. Here the wings of one aged firefighting plane literally tore off in flight. Last year to more firefighting planes crashed. As a safety precaution more aircraft have been grounded but were never replaced on a permanent basis. The chief of the California wildfire forces wrote to chief -- -- -- the Forest Service last year saying the diminish fleet. Risks large fires that threaten lives and natural resources. You accept that. We that's why we've moved forward to acquire additional aircraft in our interview chief Tim Miller told us much the same thing 54 different times and -- the Forest Service was moving forward. We are moving forward move forward move forward moving forward to -- said the Forest Service can also use military cargo planes when needed. And blamed the federal contract in process but he would not answer why it has taken so well more than a decade to replenish the depleted air fleet. Big tankers how much time do you need. Eleven years on enough. We're moving forward with the next generation we already have some of those playing -- -- gonna have promised -- Vermont. We have two of them flying -- day. A handful at most turns out and still nowhere near enough. According to state firefighting officials in states most prone to wildfires. Including those in Arizona. Who could not get the air tankers they want. The day nineteen -- firefighters. Died in the town -- -- this summer we're six air tankers ordered. Air tankers are a rare commodity in today's our world. He ordered six and you got none we got one committed but he didn't get here that was one of the Korean War vintage planes like this -- Please -- engine problems. Statue returned to its base in California. So there were no larger tankers on route when the are no fire took off as the winds change direction and increased in speed. The nineteen hot shots were trapped as the flames raced toward them with nothing in the fire's way. The badly burned bodies were discovered a short time later. -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Chief Daryl Willis says he still wonders although it's not precisely clear. If the men would have survived had any of the requested larger tankers made it to the -- Give me -- bottom five minutes. It may have bottomed ten minutes to get to a little safer place than where they were that it made a difference. Ten minutes could absolutely. If -- had ten more minutes a commitment that crew is totally -- there's no question in my mind that they would amend. The final investigative report on the -- fire is still being worked on by officials. And US Forest Service chief -- -- says no one may ever know the tankers would have made a difference. On any given day when we get hundreds of fires started in any given day. We'll never have enough aircraft for every single fire so -- always has to be -- -- if you had a bigger fleet they wouldn't be as difficult tickets. It would we be able to respond to more request. But Jarno did not become a priority until after the firefighters -- There simply were not enough air to despair before that. -- that officials in Washington. Beloved Detroit 214 -- size over the last ten years so what you had a decade ago you don't have today that's correct. Howard and those that need. If you talk to firefighters on the ground it's extreme we we need -- -- The US Forest Service says it has a plan for a brand new fleet -- firefighting aircraft. But that neither the bush nor the Obama administration's nor congress would come up with the money. What firefighters in the field say is this extremely urgent need.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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