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Forest Service adds seven air tankers ahead of fire season

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Forest Service is acquiring seven advanced firefighting air tankers to help modernize its aging fleet ahead of what is expected to be a bad season for wildfires.

The Forest Service has awarded five companies contracts to supply the planes, which dump fire-retardant chemicals on blazes, the agency said on Monday. Financial terms were not released.

"It is critical that we complete the next generation air tanker contracting effort as quickly as possible as we face the prospect of another challenging wildfire season with a dwindling legacy air tanker fleet," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a statement.

The new tankers are turbine powered, can each carry at least 3,000 gallons (11,400 liters) of retardant and have a cruising speed of at least 300 knots when fully loaded, the statement said. The tankers are several makes of aircraft including a four-engine C-130 and a three-engine DC-10.

The Forest Service's firefighting fleet includes some aircraft that have been in service for decades. The agency expects to have available up to 26 air tankers as well as up to three water scoopers, dozens of single-engine air tankers and hundreds of helicopters.

The Forest Service predicted the potential for significant fires to be above normal this year in much of the West. The area includes almost all of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Idaho, as well as parts of Colorado, Utah and Washington.

"We expect a bad year, like we had last year," said spokesman Larry Chambers.

Fires during the 2012 wildfire season burned about 9.3 million acres (3.8 million hectares) of land nationwide. It was the third-highest amount since at least 1960, the earliest date with reliable records, the Forest Service said.

In an early start to California's fire season, a wildfire northwest of Los Angeles has burned about 28,000 acres of brushland.

The companies winning the tanker contracts were Minden Air Corp, of Minden, Nevada; Aero Air LLC, of Hillsboro, Oregon; Aero Flite Inc, of Kingman, Arizona; Coulson Aircrane (USA) Inc, of Portland, Oregon; and 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC, of Adelanto, California.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Bob Burgdorfer)

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