ventura coutry

Arsonby Omission

Wasthe US Forest Service fiddling while Ventura County burned?

 

publishedby Ventura CountyReporter (VCR), 18 December 2003
by David Burger


SmokeyBear teaches children that there are three parts to the Fire Triangle: heat,fuel and oxygen. When all three exist, there will be fire. But is Smokeyoverlooking another part of the picture, one that would square the equation –namely, the human factor?

 

Onesmall constituency of fire experts and entrepreneurs, made up of voices fromCanada, Russia, Washington, D.C. and other parts of the globe, contends thatthere is indeed a fourth ingredient in the fire equation—the United StatesForest Service. They blame the severity of the recent California wildfires on anuncaring bureaucracy, citing a breach in the social contract between thegovernment and the governed. But can it really be true that the United StatesForest Service, housed in the Department of Agriculture, is guilty of arson byomission?

 

TomRobinson, a fire administrator and instructor of fire prevention with theVirginia Offices of Fire Programs and Emergency Services, thinks so: “The USFSremains in a state of denial, mired in bureaucracy and corruption.”

 

Asa result, Robinson claims, the Forest Service has been “unwilling andseemingly unable” to explore new and improved fire-fighting equipmentavailable from foreign sources and the private sector. Methods, Robinson says,that could better “protect our citizens and communities from devastation,personal and financial loss, injury and even death caused by our ever-increasingwildland fires.”

 

Inthe wake of the recent wildfires that devastated Ventura County and significantportions of the Southern California landscape, Robinson and others haveamplified their rhetoric. During this year’s fire season, at least 750,000acres, 20 lives and more than 3,000 homes were lost. As in 1991 and 1993, thebravery of our firefighters was once again demonstrated. But what Robinson andothers are saying is that there were resources readily available to the USFSthat could have helped the firefighters do their jobs more effectively and savedlives and homes.

Theprimary resource they’re referring to is the Ilyushin-76 (IL-76), an airtanker that carries 11,000 gallons of water; more than three times the capacityof the Hercules C-130, the largest domestic water-drop craft used in the U.S.“The planes now drop water in dots and dashes,” Robinson says. “Even afoot of missed ground creates a funnel through which fire survives and thrives.The IL-76 drops a continuous stream of water.” The Russian government has fiveIL76s available for worldwide use at a moment’s notice.

 

Asthe wildfires were spreading throughout Southern California Robinson reportedthat the Forest Service either ignored or brushed off repeated offers to pressthe IL-76 into service in the name of humanitarian aid – offers made in goodfaith by Global Emergency Response (GER), the Canadian company that hascontracted with the Russian Federation to handle the private deployment of thewater bomber around the globe. GER was shocked at the Forest Service’s refusal.And so were some people in Washington, D.C.

 

U.S.Representatives Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) and Curt Weldon (R-PA) held a pressconference in Washington, D.C. on October 30. Rohrabacher called the conference,he said, when the Forest Service ignored his demand for a get-together and aprompt, stateside demonstration of the IL-76’s capabilities. Visiblyfrustrated even in the press conference, Rohrbacher called the inattention a“bureaucratic logjam.”

 

Infact, the Forest Service has witnessed a demonstration of the IL-76 already,although not stateside. In September, 1994, the IL-76 showed its tremendousfire-suppressing capability in Farnborough, England for two Forest Servicerepresentatives, including aviation specialist Joe Madar. As Madar watched thetanker pour out its cargo of water in two passes, he exclaimed, “My God, willthat thing ever stop dropping water? Perfect, perfect,” according to the BBC.

Proponentsof the IL-76 were heartened by Madar’s response, but were disappointed to findthat the enthusiasm had dissolved by the time the Forest Service released a50-page report on the demonstration. In the report, the Forest Serviceidentified multiple safety and operational concerns that Madar had failed toraise initially. The report said that the Forest Service had seen “noindications that the representatives of the aircraft have addressed any of theagency’s concerns…. If they were to complete these steps, they could competewith all of the airtankers and helitankers that now meet the contractspecifications of safety, operational concerns and cost-effectiveness.”

 

GER’sPresident Tom Edmison and his partner attorney John Anderson both say that since1994, they have been repeatedly sending the Forest Service rebuttals that provethat the IL-76 satisfies all of the requirements detailed in the official report– to no avail. (The contractors tried to contact Madar, who has since died.)

 

Edmisonspeculates that there may persist an unfair prejudice on the Americans’ partthat Russian waterbombers aren’t up to American standards. “The IL-76 isrobust,” he says. “The Russians build everything like a tank, because theyhave fires in Siberia that are pretty rough.”

 

Ifanything, the IL-76 is “overbuilt,” says Anderson. “It’s used as asupply craft in Russia, which as a country has 12 time zones. The plane can landin a bloody cow pasture.”

 

TheIL-76’s specifications seem to correspond with its contractors’ praise: Itis the world’s largest, longest-range and highest-volume air-tanker.

 

Itcomes outfitted with a twin-tank system capable of carrying up to 135,000 poundsof liquid and can be filled and ready for takeoff in 15 minutes.

 

TheIL-76 can offload its twin tanks in a single salvo, yielding a heavy saturationdrop pattern for use on particularly hot, powerful blazes.

 

Itis equipped with heat-seeking devices and associated computer-driven fire datasimulations providing assistance with aiming the drop for maximum effect onwildfires.

 

Theliquid, either mixed with fire-retardants or not, descends vertically, just likerain, evenly penetrating the forest canopy and thereby optimizing thefire-retarding effect on the forest floor.

 

Asthe liquid is dropped, its four jet engines provide the necessary stability tomaintain consistent flight.

 

Becauseof the sheer volume of water carried, it is more cost-efficient than otherfirefighting methods.

 

TheIL-76 has a decade of experience in fighting nasty Siberian fires, and it alsohas been deployed throughout the world under a wide variety of conditions to aidin fire-fighting efforts. It flew to Greece in 1999, during the country’sworst wildfires in over a century. Robinson went along to witness the IL-76 inaction, and came away from the experience a believer.

 

“Therewere two 3,000-foot-wide fires that were going unabated because of windyconditions through the mountains, burning all their monuments and forests,”says Robinson. “CNN was there and said it was unstoppable. But we filled up atthe Greek Air Force base, then went to the first fire. We flew by on anobservation run, came back around, lined up on the fire, judged the winddirection, opened the doors on the tanks – and whoosh – 10 seconds later welooked back, and that 3,000 feet of fire was gone, absolutely gone.”

 

Themost common reason the IL-76’s boosters cite for its failure to be embraced inthe U.S. is bureaucratic hubris. “We have a leadership of wise guys and smartalecks,” says C. William Kauffman, an aerospace engineering professor at theUniversity of Michigan.

UnlikeEdmison and Anderson, Kauffman, like Robinson, has no financial stake in theIL-76. An expert on Russian airplanes, Kauffman says that his unflinchingadvocacy for use of the IL-76 is based on two things: its superiority as aresource and the utter antagonism of the Forest Service. “Based on mytechnical background, I can say that the IL-76 is useful because it can adapt tothe fire very quickly; it carries an enormous amount of water; you can fly it inbad conditions; you can land and take off on bad runways; and it carries so muchwater, you don’t need additives. What amazes me is the very effectiveopposition to even considering the IL-76.”

 

Thatmay soon change, especially if the IL-76 can be turned into a campaign issue fornext year’s presidential election. On the same day Rohrbacher and Weldon heldtheir Congressional press conference – even as the fires in Californiacontinued to burn – Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich wrote aletter to President George Bush pushing for use of the IL-76 in California:“Because of Administration inaction, a critical firefighting tool – theworld’s largest air tanker, capable of dropping water on an area of 12football fields – is sitting idle. If only the Administration took thenecessary bureaucratic steps, the effort to extinguish the fires in Californiacould receive a potentially decisive advantage…. The Russian Federation hasoffered the planes with trained crews on a humanitarian basis…. Once grantedthe necessary permission, the Waterbomber aircraft could be at work putting outfires in California within 24 hours.” The Bush administration did not respond.

 

TheForest Service’s failure to respond to the IL-76, while it certainly smacks ofhubris, is also symptomatic of a deeper strain of bureaucratic intransigence.

 

Whenthe fires were raging, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) expressed frustration over thefact that his district was being ravaged by fire while two fire-fightingaircraft assigned to nearby Point Mugu remained needlessly grounded. The reasonfor the grounding? An administrative technicality left over from 1934legislation aimed at – of all things – depression-era job creation.

 

TheEconomy Act of 1934 was a New Deal regulation created to safeguard jobs duringthe Great Depression. Roughly translated, the act makes it illegal for federalfirefighters to use outside resources—unless they have already pressed intoservice every bit of equipment that is available to them under currentgovernment contracts. That means that the Forest Service cannot use anynon-contracted assistance until all government-contract planes are in use –and that includes even planes that are too far away, or too outdated or lack thenecessary equipment to be of use. In other words, if even so much as onegovernment-contracted helicopter remains undeployed, the Forest Service cannotenlist other assets.

 

Inthe instance that got Gallegly steamed, the up-to-date firefighting planes atPoint Mugu remained grounded because seven contract planes – planes that weretoo small to be fielded against these large fires – were also on the ground.He and Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO) have co-sponsored an amendment to the 2004Defense Authorization Act that would temporarily suspend the provision of theEconomy Act of 1934 that keeps superior fire-fighting tools out of service.

 

TheForest Service routinely cites the Economy Act of 1934 to explain its reluctanceto use the IL-76 and other resources. “The USFS misquotes that law,” saysAnderson. “It was a Depression regulation for jobs. It was never meant to beapplied in today’s world, or to airplanes.”

 

TheForest Service also frequently cites the Wildfire Suppression Assistance Act of1989. Robinson contends that they continually misquoted the act by saying thatit prohibits the Forest Service from using any foreign assets unless all U.S.assets are totally exhausted. Robinson read the act and said that the actauthorizes the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior “to call out foreignassets at any time when such action would be in the best interest of the UnitedStates.” He argues that the recent California wildfires clearly presented sucha situation.

 

MattMathis, regional press officer for the Southern California region for the ForestService has this to say in response to mention of the IL-76: “They [GER] comeat us with this every year. It’s a fine product in Canada, but it’s notuseful here; it works well in Canada, with many large lakes. We do not have thelakes here to use the [IL-76]. If we dumped saltwater, we would destroy publiclands. The Romans used to destroy their enemies by dumping saltwater so theycouldn’t grow crops.”

 

Robinsonhas heard that reasoning before, and also reports that “the USFS has had theaudacity to say at one point that they don’t want to waste water.”

 

Inaddition, Mathis points out two further drawbacks to the IL-76: “It is veryexpensive compared to what we have here; if a fire commander had a choicebetween three helicopters and [the IL-76], they’d pick the former. Also,helicopters are more accurate. Helos can drop the water straight down and hoverright over the fire.”

 

Andersoncounters that the expense of the IL-76 is small, especially when comparing theload capacities of three helicopters to that of the Russian behemoth. Earlierthis year, the Australian government discussed plans to use the IL-76 incombating the annual summer brushfires that plague Victoria. The Victoriangovernment put the annual cost of fighting the fires at $2 million a day; GERhas offered to lease the Australian government one of the aircraft for about$1.6 million for three months.

 

HeidiValetkevitch of the Forest Service’s national press office acknowledges that“there were some good points” to the IL-76, but that ultimately, “itwasn’t something we could use.”

 

Andersonsays that the Forest Service has a “Rolodex” full of excuses. “They saythat they want to cut down substantially on the number of planes flying around,or that they want to make the skies safer,” he says. “Where are these peoplegetting this information?”

 

Beforepress time, Valetkevitch wasn’t able to find an official who would speak onthe issue. Instead, she issued a one-page summary of the 50-page report that theUSFS wrote after the 1994 England demonstrations.

 

Thesummary listed these specific concerns: lack of certification by the FederalAviation Administration (FAA); the perceived limited ability of the IL-76 toperform downhill drops, the recommended standard operating procedure of theUSFS; that the IL-76, because of its size, could only be used at approximately10 percent of the existing USFS and Bureau of Land Management airtanker bases;and that the IL-76 can be outperformed by helicopters when it comes to theamount of foam retardant delivered to the fire line.

 

Robinsonhas written and submitted a rebuttal, but has not heard back.

 

Onthe lack of certification, he wrote: “No commercial certification applicationhas been made,” because the IL-76 is to be used only for humanitarian serviceand not for commercial use. “New models are equipped with quieter engines thatwould allow the aircraft to be certificated under FAA guidelines” and thecurrent FAA regulations allow the use of the IL-76 in the type of missions itwould perform.

 

Onthe ability of the IL-76 to perform downhill drops: “Waterbomber flightmanagement will allow the aircraft to be effective in most critical firefightingsituations, even in the absence of downhill drop capability. Indeed, it isarguable that downhill drops present unacceptable levels of stress on afirefighting aircraft’s airframe and on crew members.”

 

Onsafety: “In a most regrettable example of USFS bad faith, the USFS labels theIL-76 ‘unsafe.’ By one measure, the IL-76 has a far better air-safety recordthan does the venerable U.S. C-130 Hercules…. Accidents have [never] beenattributed to… inherent design flaws.”

 

Onthe lack of bases: “More than sufficient alternative municipal and federalbases exist to comfortably accommodate the IL-76.” (Robinson added thatSouthern California, in particular, has more than enough space to accommodatethe IL-76 with its many military and commercial airports; and that even withoutthem, the IL-76 can land and take off from “grass strips,” according toJane’s Information Group, one the world’s foremost authorities on militaryaviation.)

 

Ondispersant use: “In yet another example of USFS misinformation, USFSbroadcasts that the IL-76 is capable of only water suppression. The IL-76 can,and does, use any available firefighting agent, whether it is foam, retardant orjust plain water.”

 

“Wehave dispelled all of their doubts,” Robinson says. “They have no morereasons not to try the IL-76.”

 

Why,aside from the tendency to cling to silly, outdated legislation, is there such aprofound reluctance on the part of the government to use the IL-76?

 

Andersonsuggests one answer. In June 2002, the on-line magazine Slate published anarticle by Douglas Gantenbein entitled “Smokey the Businessman.” Gantenbeinwrote, “In the past 10 years, wild-land firefighting has transformed from afederal government responsibility to a massive, extremely lucrative, privateenterprise….

 

Thereal bucks are in private contracting.”

 

Gantenbeinmade the argument, which Anderson echoes, that there is a sort of “good ol’boys” network through which the government protects the status quo. Thisstatus quo includes private aircraft, private companies that outfit fire campsfor fire crews, even private vendors who supply thousands of gallons of bottledwater.

 

Conspiracytheories aside, most advocates say that the strangest thing about the IL-76situation is what they call blatant stonewalling. “What bothers me the most isthat they won’t even try it,” says Edmison. “To be frightened to try, toput so many obstacles in our path – it’s unacceptable. It’s a brokeninstitution, and it has lost its way and it has lost everything that is good.”

 

Theholidays and cold temperatures are here. The Santa Ana winds have blown theirway through and are making their way to another hemisphere’s summer. Anotherfire season has passed. A new year is days away in Ventura County. But withoutaction, and answers, more lives and homes will be lost next year.

 

Edmisonlikens the current firefighting situation to golf clubs. “They’re only using5-irons right now,” he said. “We have the driver.”

 


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