Air tanker trouble as wildfire season nears

Air tanker trouble as wildfire season nears

15 February 2013

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 USA — With wildfire season on the way, and Colorado snowpacks measuring well below normal, the red tape that has held up contracts for a next generation of firefighting air tankers is concerning.

At this point, it seems all but impossible to have seven new planes in place for the fire season, so the federal government will have to cobble together a backup fleet while a contentious bidding process is finally completed.

It’s a shame it had to come to this.

Amassing an alternative fleet to offer fire suppression from the sky is important to Colorado and other places vulnerable to fire, and we wish federal firefighting officials luck in securing some of the old planes — there are maybe nine from the Korean War era, but it’s unclear how many still are airworthy.

Such specialized aircraft also might be rented from other countries, such as Canada, and states, such as Alaska, that have fire seasons that start later in the year.

In addition, Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Mark Udall has asked the Air Force to transfer up to seven “excess” tactical aircraft — C-130s and C-27s — to the Department of Agriculture so they can be used in firefighting. We hope the Air Force can see its way clear to agreeing to this request.

One way or another, an adequate fleet must be available, so there is a fighting chance to stop another Waldo Canyon or High Park fire from happening this spring or summer.

The best-case scenario would have been for the federal government to have been able to complete leases for a next generation of tankers in time for this season.

Unfortunately, the leases have been held up by appeals filed by bidders who were unsuccessful in the initial bidding process. After some aggressive appeals, the Forest Service put the contracts out for bid again with clearer bidding and evaluation criteria.

Getting the initial contract gives successful bidders a leg up on competitors when it comes time to rebid. And at roughly $5 million per plane per year, we’re not talking small change.

We understand why the bidders would be motivated to position themselves for the business.

But considering that nearly 400,000 acres in Colorado burned last year, resulting six civilian deaths, destruction of 648 structures, and $538 million in property losses, there ought to be a sense of urgency — shared by all — in getting this key element in the fire suppression system in place.

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