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The part played in Western firefighting by air-tanker facilities at Hill Air Force Base and Cedar City should be broadened and improved, a national study has found.

Conducted by representatives of federal land management agencies, the study analyzed and recommended changes to keep the national air-tanker program viable until 2020."This is the first time the air-tanker program has been looked at in this depth," said Terry Cullen, a pilot with the Forest Service's Intermountain Region in Ogden and a member of the National Air Tanker Study committee.

The study determined the best - and cheapest - way to keep the air-tanker program healthy into the next century is by purchasing new and improved aircraft and closing some tanker bases while upgrading others.

Improving the tanker base at Hill Air Force Base could be implemented only "to a degree predicated on the approval from the Air Force," Cullen said, because the Air Force owns the land.

The study recommended closing 12 of the 95 bases before new turbine-powered planes begin fighting fires. Some of the reasons for closures are economic, others logistic: runways that are too short or with small weight-bearing capacities and those without enough ramp space for the larger planes.

It's important to maintain national mobility so a high percentage of aircraft could fly into a high percentage of the air bases, he said. Finding the "best bang for the buck" was the study's purpose, Cul-len said.

"We should run our suppression programs as a business, allocating resources to incidents of greatest need while providing for firefighter safety," the study found.

A subcommittee visited every tanker base in the country and evaluated the costs for improving each one. The findings indicated it would take $520,000 to upgrade Hill and $770,000 to upgrade Cedar City.

As at Hill, the recommendation for improving the base at Cedar City is based on user need. The committee determined the two Utah bases would be worth the investment based on use, historic fire activity and the encroachment of urban life on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands, especially along the Wasatch Front.

"The placement of a tank base at Hill gives us the ability to protect those resources and lands," Cullen said.

The costs associated with the Hill and Cedar City improvements include environmental issues such as disposing of retardants and facility upgrades. The Utah bases have historically been used for reloading, but firefighting aircraft should be stationed at the bases full-time during the fire season, based on the study.

Nationally, it could cost more than $38 million to upgrade the 42 bases. Between $7 million and $9 million could be saved by closing the 12 bases.

"At the national level they'll have to decide what to implement and what not to implement," Cul-len said. "Money is the big factor."

On a national level, new, heavier military aircraft need to replace the aging fleet. The study recommended the purchase of 11 C-130E Hercules planes, with the capacity to carry 5,000 gallons of fire retardant, 20 P-3 Orion planes and 10 C-130B Hercules planes, with the capacity to carry 3,000 gallons.

President Clinton signed a law authorizing the sale of military aircraft to private industry in October. Alternatives like purchasing civilian aircraft would be much more expensive, and taxpayers would eventually have to bear the cost, Cullen said.

Judy Kissinger, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., said a national team will convene next week to look at comments received after the study was disseminated.

The comment period ended Dec. 31.

The team will revise the recommendations if necessary. No timetable has been set for actual implementation of the study's recommendations, Kissinger said.

The study recommended closing bases in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.