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Putting Out Wildfires with One Wing Tied Behind Your Back


(Courety of Gila Nat'l Forest, via

The fire season, much like hurricane season, has become increasingly longer due to the effects of climate change.  As I’m writing this, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is reporting that there are thirty-seven large fires in progress in eighteen different states. They include full suppression and resource managed fires.  About 2,600,000 acres have burned this year, while last year’s tally was over 5 and a half million.  There’s a lot of fire season to come, and coupled with the drought many areas are experiencing and the massive amounts of beetle-killed pines and spruce…it’s expected to be a real pip.

The weather has been cooperating with suppression efforts; some areas in the Southwest have gotten a little rain, but the forecast is for higher temperatures and thundershowers to develop over the Great Basin and Rockies.

Our local fire here in SW Colorado once again made me very aware of how important air support is to fire suppression, and most especially the slurry bombers dropping retardant to aid fires from getting out of control early, and also for providing help around the edges to aid the ground crews stop it from spreading further.  Creating a fire line means removing vegetation down to bare dirt, often by hand, using tools like short hoes (pulaskis).  Backbreaking work it must be; our son, who spent five years as a hotshot, agrees.

This was the fourth time our mountain has caught on fire over the decades we’ve lived here, and I’ve witnessed up close what the planes and helicopters, whether dippers or skycranes can accomplish.

The first morning after we were evacuated, I watched the fire…it barely had laid down all night, but by dawn…it was at least subdued.  I was sure that any moment I’d first hear, then see the slurry bombers coming to the rescue.

But no; the first plane didn’t arrive until noon, and by then the fire was going full-tilt-boogie; then another plane, but they were the small SEATs (single engine air tankers), with a limited retardant storage capacity of 800 gallons.  Some helicopters valiantly tried to stanch the flames, but by then the fire behavior was extreme.  Where was the four-engine jet we’d seen the day before, dropping thousands of gallons of slurry on the lower end of the canyon, diving down low like an eagle after prey, delivering its load instead, then zooming up into the sky away from the flames and plumes of smoke?  Please, I begged any forces that might hear me.  Help stop this fire!

As it turned out, the bulk of the fixed wing air support had been diverted to other fires, probably to the massive High Park Fire near Fort Collins, CO, and to the new fire in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, in which over 32,000 people were finally evacuated.

For years the Forest Service had been plane-deficit.   Had they really not secured enough planes by now, especially given the forecasts of hotter and dryer summers, higher winds, and the on-again, off-again ‘controlled burns’ to mitigate the danger of the standing dead forests that would go up like Roman candles were lightning to strike them?

In 2002, the Forest Service had either ownership or under contract, 44 fixed wing slurry bombers.  This year they began with a fleet totaling 11.  Eleven for the entire nation, and one of them crashed early in June on the Nevada-Utah border, killing two; a second was grounded after it was forced to make an emergency landing at a Tahoe airport when its landing gear failed to engage.

The Denver Post says that of the nine remaining planes, all P2V’s, eight are at least fifty years old.  You can read about the history of the depletion of contracted air tankers there.  The story in a nutshell is that since 2002, when two of the ancient, cumbersome planes crashed, killing five, a blue ribbon panel issued a scathing report on their findings, and calling for the FS to modernize the fleet, increase inspections, yada, yada.  In 2004, 33 more planes were grounded when they failed their safety inspections.  A 2009 Inspector General’s report called on the Forest Service to retire the fleet by this year; the planes would no longer be financially viable to maintain, nor airworthy.

Last year, the FS canceled its contract with Aero Union for six large Orion P-3’s, citing the company’s failure to meet contractual obligations.  The photo of a P-3 here is amazing; they helped put out several fires here and at Mesa Verde National Park; the giant orange, navy and white monsters were a sincerely welcome sight.

In July of 2011, Bill Gabbert, writing for Wildfire Today, said that companies were reluctant, or downright refused, to contract planes to the Forest Service because they wouldn’t put them under exclusive use contracts, and only offered Call When Needed contracts (CWN), and didn’t offer minimum hours/days guarantees even then.

Tom Tidwell, head of the Forest Service has maintained that they have plenty of air power, given that if the need arises, they can call area Air National Guards for extra help.  That part appears to be true; NIFC says that:

“Six MAFFS C-130 aircraft and support personnel have been activated to support wildland fire suppression operations. The MAFFS are from the 302nd Airlift Wing, Colorado Springs (US Air Force Reserve), the 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Islands (California Air National Guard), and the 153rd Airlift Wing, Cheyenne (Wyoming Air National Guard). The aircraft are operating out of Colorado Springs, CO, and Cheyenne, WY.”

In addition, Tidwell announced on June 13 that they will retire the old fleet ‘by 2021’, and have contracted for three new next-generation planes in 2012, four more in 2013, all the four turbine jet engined 2 BAe-146s. in the process of modernizing their fleet in order to retire the old P-2’s.

According to the Post:

“In addition to the planes on contract, the Forest Service has mobilized eight other large air tankers, including four CV-580s from Canada, one CV-580 from Alaska and one DC-10 that can carry 11,800 gallons of retardant that is fighting fires in Arizona. Two CAL FIRE S-2Ts are operating on an agreement with California and are available only for use in that state.

That means the agency is able to deploy 17 tankers with three more due this summer, said Jones. “

Two can only operate in California, where I’m sure they will see plenty of use soon.  It appears that the FS is now willing to consider another contract with Aero Union for the Orion P-3s, which CNN recently reported were still sitting on the ground, and could have been mobilized in 4-6 weeks.  It would seem that after these pilots, Todd Tompkins and Ronnie Chambless  were killed when their air tanker crashed on June 3, the Obama administration and the FS reckoned that it was time to do something to expand the fleet.

On July 2, a C-130 loaded with a MAFF system crashed in South Dakota; the President called them heroes.

From the Huffington Post:

“In all, eight workhorse C-130s stand ready to fight destructive wildfires around the country — but all are grounded due to rules governing the use of the nation’s aerial firefighting resources. The new purchases, meanwhile, won’t help firefighters battling destructive blazes in Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere in the West for weeks, if not months.

“Getting into large, multiple wildfire scenarios, there’s just not enough (aircraft) to go around in the current state,” said Chuck Bushey, past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, a professional association of people who fight wildfires.”

From Gabbert, re: the seven next-gen tankers over the next two years, which is all that Congress has funded:

“It doesn’t come close to fixing the problem,” he said. “Experts say we need 30 or 40 or even 50. This decision should have been made 10 to 20 years ago. They knew this day would come. Most of the Western U.S.’s fire season hasn’t even started yet.

“When the West really gets into the fire season, that will be the proof.”

In other GOOD wildland fighter news, the petition to ask Obama to allow firefighters to purchase federal health insurance worked; he announced his order to that effect yesterday.  Good job, to all of you who signed the petition.

In 2002, an ancient C130 that fell apart in midair:

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