The Russians aren’t coming – to put out the fires

TheRussians aren’t coming – to put out the fires

5July 2005


Between producing best-selling books, lecturing, filmmaking and traveling theworld, author Alan Dean Foster doesn’t need additional work, and yet the otherday he graciously chose to take on one more job: Mine.

Fortunately for him, daily journalism involves little heavy lifting and (accordingto numerous readers and one or two previous editors) even less mental exertion.All that Foster had to do to perform the role of an Arizona-based newspapercolumnist was to come up with an interesting question that others in the mediahadn’t asked. Which is a lot easier than guys like me would prefer to admit.

For the past 25 years Foster and his wife have lived in Prescott, a place ofidyllic beauty and temperate climate that suits the couple’s desire to reside ina community unlikely to suffer the effects of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods,earthquakes or most other natural disasters. Except for one. Fire.

With that in mind Foster, acting like a good journalist, asked himselfrecently if local, state and federal officials were doing everything possible toprepare for the large and potentially disastrous wildfires that we have seen inrecent years.

“I kept coming across references to this enormous Russian water bomber thathad been prevented by our government from being used in the United States,”he said. “It seemed absurd to me, living in a part of the country wherefire is always a possibility, that we wouldn’t at the very least give this planea test run. But we haven’t.”

The aircraft Foster speaks about is the Ilyushin-76TD, known most often as theIl-76. It’s a heavy-lift jet capable of carrying 135,000 pounds of liquids,which I’m told is about five times the capacity of the largest fire-fightingplanes in use in the United States.

The plane has been used to fight fires in Russia and Greece, and after havingread about it Foster wrote to the governor’s office and to the U.S. ForestService to ask why it has never gotten a chance to prove itself here.

“I got no response,” he said.

Federal agencies responsible for fighting wildfires operate under the NationalInteragency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

A spokesman for the agency, Randy Eardley, told me that Il-76 has a number ofproblems.

“It doesn’t hold an FAA certificate, for one,” he said. “But alsoit’s not designed to hold fire retardant, just water. And its tanking systemdoesn’t have the capacity to release incrementally. That kind of load can do alot of damage.”

Eardley also said that relatively few airports can accommodate the big jet, andthat it requires more support personnel than other planes.

Foster has communicated with one of the partners in the company that is tryingto get U.S. officials to use the Il-76.

“They’ve offered what amounted a free demonstration,” Foster said.”The cost of the crew and fuel. What can it hurt? I have no financialinterest in this. But it seems odd that we trust the Russians to shuttle backand forth to the space station but we don’t trust them to carry a load of water.”

Fire Center officials say we have all the air power necessary to fight any majorfire, however. And that for now the Il-76 isn’t an option. Of course, that maychange with the next big blaze.

“It seems crazy to wait,” Foster said.

He doesn’t understand why the politicians and bureaucrats would do such a thing.Then again, Foster is most well known for his work in science fiction andfantasy. Occurrences in the real world are, at times, a lot less plausible.


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