Island-based Martin Mars aircraft sat mostly idle during ’09 wildfire

Island-based Martin Mars aircraft sat mostly idle during ’09 wildfire

17 October 2010

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USA —  A U.S. Congress investigation will scrutinize the U.S. Forest Service’s handling of a 2009 wildfire that scorched Los Angeles County over 52 days in 2009 and will look at things like why the Martin Mars waterbomber, based in Port Alberni, was barely used and spent all but two days of the fire parked idle on a nearby lake.

The probe by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigational arm of Congress, on the Station Fire will begin in November and is expected to take about six months, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Among those leading the quest to get answers is Bill Derr, a retired U.S. Forest Service manager who spent 38 years in enforcement and fire control. Derr shocked members of Congress at a hearing this week in Pasadena, Calif., saying the Martin Mars was available to put the fire out early on, but it wasn’t called upon.

Wayne Coulson, owner of the Martin Mars, said Friday it was difficult to sit and watch while fires burned.

“Our frustration was we were paid to do nothing, which is too bad because that’s not what we were there for — we were there to put fires out,” he said.

Coulson is expecting a call from the investigators and has already sent in a stack of records and paperwork.

The Martin Mars is the largest-scooping waterbomber with a carrying capacity of 27,000 litres of water and fire-suppressing gel. Each drop covers 1.6 hectares.

Derr said the USFS missed an opportunity by not using the Martin Mars at the fire’s start.

“In my opinion, if the Martin Mars had been used on the first day of the fire [Aug. 26, 2009], there was a very strong likelihood it would have prevented the spot fires below the highway,” said Derr in a telephone interview from California.

“In my opinion, had the Martin Mars been used on the second day of the fire, there’s a very strong likelihood that the fire would have been contained in the immediate area.”

The wildfire got beyond control on the second day and raged across the Angeles National Forest, destroying 200 structures and leading to the death of two firefighters. The total losses won’t be felt for several years and could add up to $5 billion, said Derr.

Derr testified before the bipartisan congressional panel representing a group of retirees concerned about the current management of the USFS, and reported that the Martin Mars was not only in the area and available, but a USFS manager had turned away the loaded aircraft on the first day of the wildfire. The Martin Mars was ordered by another USFS manager to dump its water and gel behind a firebreak that hadn’t yet burned.

Why the Martin Mars wasn’t used more “is what we’re endeavouring to find out,” said Derr.

Derr said the panel seemed surprised to know the USFS only used the Martin Mars two days and failed to use its accompanying Sikorsky S76 helicopter at all, despite coughing up $300,000 toward upgrading the aircraft with infrared cameras and other high-tech equipment.

“Then [the USFS] paid $1.23 million for [the Martin Mars and Sikorsky] to sit on standby,” Derr said.

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