Sept. 10, 2013 — -- The 19 firefighters who died in the Yarnell wildfire in Arizona this summer might have survived had any of the six U.S. Forest Service air tankers requested by the state arrived on the scene, a senior fire official told ABC News.
But only one plane, a Korean War vintage aircraft, was dispatched to help and it had to return to base because of engine problems.
"It may have bought them ten minutes to get to a little safer place than where they were," Prescott, Arizona, Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis told ABC News in an interview aired on "World News With Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline." Willis spoke not far from where the men he hired, trained and with whom often fought wildfires perished in a field of chapparal scrub brush.
"If they'd had ten more minutes, they could have made it. That crew was totally fit. There's no question in my mind that they would've made it," he said.
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The incident highlights an increasingly critical shortage of large air tankers used to fight wildfires across the country. An ABC News investigation found that the federal fleet of the planes has shrunk over the last decade from 44 to 11.
In the case of the deadly Yarnell blaze, air tankers had been hitting the fire, but none were on site when it took a sudden, vicious turn. Arizona Forestry Division spokesperson Jim Paxon said it was then that his office requested the six tankers.
"We got one committed, but he didn't get here," Paxon said, referring to the Korea War-era plane with engine troubles. The other five planes, state documents said, were either held back by inclement weather or were fighting another simultaneous blaze.
Officials at each fire had to argue for the federal airtankers, including two converted DC-10 passenger jets that drop 11,000 gallons of retardant slurry to block a fire's progression, based on need.
State officials were up against a familiar problem facing states such as Arizona, California, Oregon and Nevada battling wildfires that have gotten bigger and more numerous over the past decade, as the western U.S. has faced drought and residential development into dry, forested areas.
Of the shrunken Forest Service's fleet of large air tankers, most are museum pieces dating to the Korean War.
The ABC News investigation over the summer found that reports over the past decade warned of the loss of vintage firefighting airplanes and urged replacements be found -- which have yet to be identified despite nine studies during that time recommending immediate action.
"Airtankers are a rare commodity in today's fire world," Arizona Forestry spokesman Paxon said.
The chief of Cal-Fire, the California state agency, wrote to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell last year, saying the diminished federal fleet "risks large fires that threaten lives and natural resources."
In an ABC News interview, Tidwell repeatedly insisted that he's "moving forward" to fix the decade-old problem, even though the service has eleven or fewer large planes flying this fire season. He said the Forest Service can also use military cargo planes when needed and blamed the federal contracting process.
"Eleven is not enough," Tidwell admitted.
But he would not answer why it has taken so long -- more than a decade -- to replenish the depleted air fleet.
"It's my responsibility to move forward to make sure that we have the contracted aircraft that we need," Tidwell said.
The Forest Service has proposed spending more than $1 billion to buy new military planes but hasn't won over budget crunchers at the White House or on Capitol Hill.
Instead, the service is relying on two converted DC-10 passenger jets operated by contractor 10 Tanker to battle one of the worst fire seasons in years, in terms of lives and fatalities, which have killed at least 25 this year. Investigators are still working on the final report on the Yarnell fire, and no one may ever know if the tankers would have made a difference to the 19 dead Hotshots.
"On any given day when we get hundreds of fires started on any given day we will never have enough aircraft for every single fire. So there always has to be priorities set," Tidwell said.
Paxon said that it's become clear wildland firefighters cannot wait for Washington, given their "extreme" need for large airtankers to support them as they dig fire lines and clear brush to deny fast-moving fires fuel.
"We need them now," he said.