As wildfires rage, questions arise about lack of air tankers to fight the flames

As wildfires rage, questions arise about lack of air tankers to fight the flames

28 June 2012

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 USA  -Summer is barely a week old and yet hundreds of thousands of acres in the West have burned causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. As Colorado and New Mexico cope with record-setting disasters, many are asking questions about the lack of a competent air tanker fleet after a decade of decline.

While the war against wildfires is won on the ground, the critical opening salvos are often fired from the air by aircraft dropping water and retardant. From the moment a fire is reported the rapid deployment of aerial assets is crucial to success.

If there aren’t enough assets to fight a fire or they are in the wrong location, the results are disastrous – as multiple states in the West can attest to today.

Ten years ago the United States had a fleet of 44 large or very large tankers available.

Today that number stands at nine.

The USFS has struggled to have the aerial resources needed to battle fires across the Rocky Mountain region and the southwest. Study after study had been done showing the need to add to the aging fleet but for 10 years nothing was done.

The writing has been on the wall but none more so than last year. Wildfires ravaged the state of Texas in April and again in September. The relatively flat Texas terrain was perfect for the use of air tankers and yet there weren’t enough available as more than a million acres were burned.

Last month the Gila National Forest in New Mexico exploded with what is now called the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire. That massive blaze has to date torched nearly 300,000 acres.

Within days the call for more aerial assets went out but the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) ignored them as the blaze grew. wildfire expert Bill Gabbert noted that three massive Very Large Tankers (VLTs) were sitting unused as the USFS was unwilling to issue a contract.

“It is crazy for the U.S. Forest Service, especially under these climate conditions, and the fire situation we find ourselves in today, to not utilize these resources,” Gabbert wrote.

More than a month later, those resources are still untapped and in the intervening period hundreds of thousands of more acres have burned, hundreds of homes have been destroyed and lives have been lost.

Playing politics while fires burn

Colorado is a crucial swing state and in this election year is experiencing a record-setting fire season.

In March a fire claimed three lives and destroyed nearly two dozen homes.

Nearly three weeks ago the massive High Park Fire started and has now grown to the state’s second largest fire in history. With 257 homes lying in ashes, questions began to surface about the ability to quickly respond to the fire.

A quick fix was thrown together spurred on by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. Udall had long advocated for quicker action by the Forest Service in rectifying the issue.

In April the senator wrote to the USFS saying, “I am unconvinced the (Forest Service’s) current air tanker fleet is prepared to adequately address an immense wildfire or even what is sure to be a long fire season.”

Now as his home state burned, Udall pushed through legislation that will add seven planes over the next two years.

The move is a step in the right direction but firefighting experts have called it a Band-Aid after 10 years of inaction. Political pundits have said the only reason it moved forward so quickly was because Colorado is a swing state under a fiery siege.

Mother Nature shows the need for action

As if Mother Nature wanted to drive the point home, the Waldo Canyon Fire exploded west of Colorado Springs in recent days. More than 18,000 acres have burned and hundreds of homes are likely lost. The fire has started to encroach on the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The U.S. Forest Service’s air tanker fleet was unable to adequately respond to this new blaze and others. The National Guard’s helicopters were mobilized for the High Park Fire and the Air Force has deployed its massive C-130 Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS).

It is perhaps ironic that these critical pieces of equipment are flown on a platform slated for massive budget cuts by the Obama administration. The C130 fleet could number 65 fewer in the years to come – a 17% cut.

President Obama to visit Colorado and survey damage, likely will face tough questions

After more than two weeks of silence on the deadly wildfires in the Centennial State, President Barack Obama will visit to see the damage firsthand on Friday. If he takes questions, they likely will be hard ones to answer.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was asked yesterday about the possible inadequacy of air support to battle the fires. The Democrat was unable to offer a resounding defense.

Hickenlooper said, “The one thing that keeps coming back to me is that the sooner you can get on these fires and the more resources you can get on them ASAP [the better]. At this point at this level of fire concentration, we’re probably right at the edge of our limit, to be perfectly blunt. Now that we see what that limit is, perhaps we do need more.”

As voters in this crucial swing state live under a cloud of smoke and watch their forests burn, the lack of action in recent years could influence them. It is arguably the federal government’s most important role to protect life and property and the lack of adequate firefighting capability points to a failure.

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