As the Missionary Ridge Fire crept southward on its western flank last week, I sat in awe at a window seat watching the air tankers and helicopters bomb the blaze withslurry and water. For the most part, the battle has gone well, and there has been little criticism of those leading the charge in this fray. Thats not true, however, at the national level.An e-mail alerted me to an ongoing controversy: the possible use of giant Russian Ilyushin-76 jet tankers to supplement smaller, aging American-made tankers now onthe job. The IL-76 can carry 11,000 gallons of water or retardant, while C-130s and P3s carry about 3,000 gallons. A Canadian-U.S.-Russian commercial alliance, Global Emergency Response, has been touting the IL-76 for years and trying to get federal approval to show theaircrafts firefighting capabilities on U.S. soil. So far, the Forest Service has blocked the effort. Agency officials say its too fast, not adequately maneuverable, requiresa long runway and carries too much water that can damage property or injure ground crews when dropped at high speed. The firefighting version of the IL-76 is nicknamed “the Waterbomber.” Its proponents dispute the criticisms and say it will outperform the smaller tankers in high windsand can quell flames the length of 12 football fields in one drop. According to Globals Web site, www.waterbomber.com, the recommended runway length is 6,000 -6,500 feet when fully loaded. (The runway at Durango-La PlataCounty Airport is 9,200 feet long.) The IL-76s payload drop speed is 175 mph, about the same as other tankers, and the “marginally greater” release altitude provides”increased safety without compromising load dispersion.” John Anderson, Globals Canadian representative, told me via e-mail, “The Durango fire is one of the big three U.S. wildfires we follow with great interest, daily. Weare truly sorry for Durangos losses and understand Durango to be a wonderful, beautiful place with a strong tourism industry to preserve and to protect.”Of course we feel the fire fight indeed could have been handled better. Simply, we offer the most powerful firefighting aircraft on the face of the planet.” Andersons U.S. colleague, Tom Robinson, a veteran air tanker pilot, added, “The citizens in your area need to know the truth about the (Forest Services) refusal toallow any foreign (Canadian and Russian) competition for its private fleet of WWII vintage aircraft. If we were allowed to assist I guarantee only a fraction, if any, homeswould have been lost. I fly the missions; I know.
“I do not want any criticism of the groundpounders out there. … The fault lies in Washington where … the bureaucrats are petrified of change.”Its hard to believe that money and politics arent involved. For a look at the business angle, read “Smokey the Businessman” in the online magazine Slate, http://slate.msn.com/?id=2066948.
Could the IL-76 have saved homes in La Plata County? Maybe, maybe not. But if the Congress, prodded by our Rep. Scott McInnis, can craft legislation to designate Australian firefighters as temporary federal employees to cut through red tape and help with fire management, then it would seem a way could be found to find out.
Lewis McCool is the Heralds technology editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.