USA –-After weeks of horrific wildfires, some parts of the West are enjoying an early arrival of monsoonal rains to help dampen fire danger. In the aftermath of the deadly blazes questions are being raised as to why some of the nations most powerful aerial firefighting assets sat on runways while homes and property were destroyed.
New Mexico saw its largest fire in the states history destroy nearly 300,000 acres in the Gila National Forest from May to June. Another wildfire, the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso, destroyed 224 homes and cabins.
In Colorado, the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins became the second largest in state history and 259 homes were destroyed. Before that blaze was contained, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned through the western suburbs of Colorado Springs destroying 346 homes.
Other blazes with names like the Arapaho Fire and Fontenelle Fire in Wyoming and the Seeley Fire and Clay Springs Fire in Utah have proven devastating as well.
At the start of 2012 the US Forest Service had a mere nine large or very large tankers available to fight wildfires. That number is less than one quarter of the number available ten years ago when the service had 44 under contract.
Local officials and residents now rightfully question how the lack of aerial assets affected the response to the fires in their areas. Could they have made a difference?
Governors of states across the West called the National Guard into action when the blazes erupted. Helicopters provided water drops and personnel added security in the burn area.
Last month as homes were being destroyed in Colorado, the military activated its entire contingent of C-130 Hercules firefighting aircraft. Equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS), the planes quickly made a difference in the battle against the blazes.
Despite the obvious benefit of water and retardant drops from the air, the largest aircraft have remained virtually grounded. Politics and contract disputes between the private companies that fly the tankers and the Forest Service leave a tremendous gap.
The Forest Service has pushed for changes in the way it contracts with companies resulting in fewer assets being available.
In the past companies were given a season-long contract to ensure the airplanes are available and ready at a moments notice. This provided the company with the income required to maintain the aircraft and pay personnel that fly and maintain them.
In recent years however the Forest Service has switched to Call-When-Needed (CWN) contracts essentially offering no guarantee to the companies that can provide the services. While this may save the Forest Service money, companies simply cannot afford to have millions of dollars of equipment standing by with no guarantee of income.
Last year California-based Aero Union found itself caught in the middle of a contract dispute with the Forest Service and was forced to shut down its tanker operations. Its eight P-3 Orion aircraft were unavailable to help battle this years fires.
Some have argued the most egregious example of the Forest Services lack of foresight is its refusal to call into action Very Large Tankers. These massive aircraft are capable of delivering more than six times the amount of retardant as the Air Forces C-130 MAFFS.
Evergreen International Aviation operates one of these planes, a Boeing 747 Supertanker that can drop 20,000 gallons of retardant or water on a wildfire. The aircraft has seen great success fighting fires in Mexico and Israel recently as well as in California in the past.
While Colorado, New Mexico and other states deal with one of their worst wildfire seasons in history, the Supertanker sits idle in Arizona, never called into action. Late last month as fires burned out of control, the company issued a statement asking to be allowed to jump into the fight.
The pleas thus far have fallen on deaf ears.
When questioned why the 747 and other assets were not called into service, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told KUSA, This is complicated.