USA –-Wildfires burn out of control, destroying homes, lives and property while expensive aerial tankers sit on the ground amid complaints that not enough is being done to battle the flames.
It could be 2012.
But it was 1979.
An Air Force report released just a few years after the federal government developed the Modular Airborne Firefighting System sounded the same alarms heard this summer as crews have struggled to contain a system of stubborn wildfires that have raged across the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere through the western states.
In a prelude to the protests heard over the past couple of weeks, the report raised concerns that the portable tankers had been relegated to “a secondary role” and were not being used extensively to battle national fires.
“The bureaucratic tangle and frustration a requesting agency must face to activate MAFFS has served only to distract from the overall value of this unique firefighting system,” said the report, which outlined in exhaustive detail the history of the aerial tankers.
The cause for the consternation then and now is a federal law that says the government-owned tankers cannot be mobilized until all available commercial firefighting planes have been pressed into service.
The modular tankers, or MAFFS, can be fitted into the back of C-130 cargo planes and are used to drop retardant on fires to reduce their intensity and slow the spread of the flames so crews on the ground can construct containment lines.
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, has been trying for years to overturn the federal law that often keeps the tankers grounded. Last month, he filed legislation that would require the U.S. Forest Service to activate them when fighting fires.
The Forest Service owns the tankers, but they are flown by members of the Air National Guard, who are military personnel.
Gallegly remembers standing on the tarmac in Camarillo in the mid-1990s and watching as flames in the distance spread up the mountainside. Nearby were two of the MAFFS tankers, stationed with the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing, grounded and unable to join the firefight because of the federal law’s restrictions.
“I’m a private-sector guy,” Gallegly said, “but when I sat out on the tarmac watching houses burn in Ventura County and saw the airplanes ready to go and not be able to use them, I got very frustrated.”
Others have felt the same frustration.
During California’s disastrous Agoura-Malibu fire that destroyed more than 200 homes in 1978, the county fire boss asked for tanker support but was given only two private air tankers to fight the blaze. Afterward, Col. Russell A. Penland, air commander for the 146th Airlift Wing, argued that if MAFFS could have been brought to the scene, a number of private homes could have been saved.
Work to develop an aerial firefighting system began in early 1971 after a series of raging brush and forest fires destroyed government and private property. The following September, a working prototype of the tankers was dispatched to help the Forest Service fight the Romero fire burning out of control in Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara.
Within a year, the Forest Service had acquired eight of the MAFFS units. More than two decades later, with the fleet aging, Gallegly helped secure federal funding to replace the original eight units with newer models that cost about $2 million each.
The units are different from conventional airs tankers in that 3,000 gallons of retardant can be pumped out of tanks inside the aircraft by an onboard air compressor. The C-130s follow a lead plane, which guides them to the location where the retardant is to be dumped.
“In some cases, we can actually stop the fire,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Allen, the MAFFS program manager for the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, with which two of the newer units and a backup are stationed.”But in most cases,” Allen said, “it takes somebody on the ground to actually put it out.”
The federal restrictions on when and how the MAFFS can be mobilized were put in place not long after the tankers appeared on the scene.
Commercial pilots and owners of private air tanker companies complained the government had no business getting involved in the firefighting business. In 1975, an agreement was reached stipulating that the MAFFS could not be mobilized unless all available or suitable civilian resources had been committed and the MAFFS support would not compete with private enterprise.
The agreement essentially reiterated the Economy Act of 1932, which prohibits the military from performing a job that could be accomplished by private industry.
Critics have long argued the law prevents the Forest Service from putting all of its available resources into firefights, often resulting in the unnecessary loss of property and, sometimes, lives.
The debate got especially heated this summer as the wildfires raged across the West, consuming thousands of acres, destroying hundreds of homes and claiming six lives in Colorado alone.
In late June, the Forest Service mobilized all eight of its MAFFS units to help fight the fires, but only after a very public dressing down by Gallegly, who at one point charged, “The enemy is not the fire. It’s the Forest Service.”
The Forest Service says the MAFFS tankers were never intended for use in all fires but were meant to be deployed when a “surge” capability is needed to help crews on the ground.
But other experts say aerial tankers such as the MAFFS units are most effective when mobilized early.
“The philosophy in fire management is if you are going to suppress a fire, you hit it hard and you hit it fast,” said Mike Flannigan, a wildland-fire professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. “If you detect a fire right away and you send crews or aircraft to it right away, that is when you are going to have your success.” Once a fire spreads across a wider area, an aerial attack becomes about as effective “as spitting on a campfire,” Flannigan said.
Historically, MAFFS units have not be activated until the fires are huge, “and then you’re at a disadvantage,” said Ed Bellion, a retired vice commander of the 146th Airlift Wing.
“We always felt like we could be out there using this, and we’re sitting on the ground,” said Bellion, who lives in Camarillo. “It can be very frustrating. It would be like being a fireman, and they just don’t call your truck out of the firehouse. You think, ‘Good God, we have this asset. We’re available, and nobody wants us.’ “
Gallegly and others say the need for the MAFFS units has grown more pressing as commercial firefighting equipment has dwindled. In 2003, the Forest Service had 44 fixed-wing commercial planes at its disposal. Now it has eight. Some of the aging commercial planes have crashed while in service, and others have been grounded.
“They’ve know this day was coming for decades, and they should have planned for it,” said Bill Gabbert, who worked for 33 years as a federal wildland firefighter and now writes the blog Wildfire Today.
Bellion applauds Gallegly for working to remove the federal restriction that limits use of the MAFFS. But given that the debate has been raging off and on for nearly four decades, he wonders whether the matter will ever get resolved.
“Apparently, it’s only important in fire season,” he said. “Because as soon as the fires go out, everything dies.”