Aerial Tankers Have History of Being Grounded as Wildfires Rage

Aerial Tankers Have History of Being Grounded as Wildfires Rage

12 July 2012

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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.

The U.S. Forest Service owns the tankers, but they are flown by members of the Air National Guard, who are military personnel.

U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., 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 Forest Service to activate them when fighting fires.

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.

“(W)hen 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,” Gallegly said.

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, the airlift commander 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. In the early 1970s, the Forest Service acquired eight of the MAFFS units, which differ from conventional air tankers in that 3,000 gallons of retardant can be pumped out of tanks inside the aircraft by an onboard air compressor.

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.

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, Flannigan said.” “Once a fire spreads across a wider area, an aerial attack becomes about as effective as spitting on a campfire.”

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