POSTED: 1:20 pm MDT May 18, 2004 UPDATED: 1:53 pm MDT May 18, 2004
Just two years ago, the Hayman Fire roared through the Rockies, blackening 138,000 acres and destroying more than 130 homes. It cost roughly $240 million to fight. Did that fire have to grow to that size? Did that many homes have to burn? 7NEWS Investigator Tony Kovaleski has exposed a troubling trail of conflict and red tape inside the U.S. Forest Service.
Earlier this month, after years of problems, the Forest Service grounded its fleet of air tankers. 7NEWS asks: has the government wasted taxpayer money on outdated, dangerous and underperforming aircraft while ignoring bigger, faster and newer technology?
Twenty-three months have passed since the Hayman Fire and Ray and Linda White, who lost their home to the fire, are still angry.
“Bureaucracy and politics is what caused this to happen,” Linda White said.
“They should have got the fire out over at Lake George where it started,” Ray White said.
The fire destroyed their cabin and destroyed any confidence the couple had in the U.S. Forest Service.
“If it would have been jumped on those first two days, this never would have happened,” Linda White said.
Criticism also comes from recognized aviation expert Bill Kauffman.
“The people from the Forest Service seem to have a vested interest in continuing to ineffectively fight fires,” said Kauffman.
Following three fatal crashes of Forest Service aircraft back in 2002, a blue ribbon committee also criticized the Forest Service and its fleet, writing in its final report that “a number of potentially viable options were routinely dismissed as too expensive before being carefully examined.”
“I would say it’s almost criminal that the Forest Service has not brought over here five years ago or 10 years ago these Ilyushin 76s,” Kauffman said.
The Ilyushin 76, a Russian waterbomber, is one of several supertankers that experts say can take aerial firefighting into a new era. They’re planes that can deliver a liquid payload nearly four times larger then biggest plane used last year.
“It’s a remarkable aircraft. It does a remarkable job and it could’ve been here for nine years fighting fires if it had not been for the hurdles placed in its way by the U.S. Forest Service,” said Tom Robinson, who represents the Ilyushin 76.
Proponents of the Il-76 accuse the U.S. government of creating red tape to keep the plane from dousing fires. The Russians even offered the plane for the Hayman Fire.
In a letter obtained by 7NEWS, the city manager of Colorado Springs asked Gov. Bill Owens to cut through the bureaucracy and bring in the Il-76, writing, “It would be a shame to not have a tool such as this.”
When asked what kind of difference the Il-76 would have made on the Hayman Fire, Robinson said, “It wouldn’t have stopped the fire from becoming a fire, but it would’ve stopped it from being 90 percent as large as it (was).”
Tom Landon, who is with the U.S. Forest Service, laughs at the idea that the Il-76 could have save 90 percent of the homes burned in the Hayman Fire.
“There’s not a catch-all tool out there that would have saved the homes there on the Hayman Fire,” Landon said.
In the wake of the blue ribbon committee’s criticism, the Forest Service says it’s now seriously considering two super tankers — a modified 747 and a modified DC-10.
But experts say its unlikely any super tanker will be approved to fly and fight fires this year.
“Why didn’t they use it? What was there fear?” Linda White wondered. “They should have tried it, and it makes me angry that they didn’t do it.”
Families like the Whites are left to wonder what may have happened two years ago and what might happen this summer. A governor’s spokesman said he did receive a letter from the Colorado Springs city manager but he has no record of responding to the request in any way.
Developers of the 747 are hoping to have the plane approved and ready to fight fires this year but that’s only if they can get the green light from the U.S. Forest Service.