Why air tankers don’t fly when fires burn

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Me­gan Schrader

As wild­fires race to­ward pop­u­lated ar­eas or rav­ish beloved forest­land, noth­ing looks more pro­duc­tive than a line of red slurry be­ing laid down by a dar­ing pi­lot.

It’s a vis­ceral re­ac­tion that we all feel when we see the red spray — help is on the way and we can con­trol this sit­u­a­tion.

And when a fire is rag­ing and air­planes are grounded, the anger is real.

Some­times tankers are grounded dur­ing fires for safety rea­sons, or be­cause ex­perts agree the planes wouldn’t be help­ful given the in­ten­sity or direction of the fire.

But too fre­quently it is be­cause of the screwed-up sys­tem for con­tract­ing air tankers, one that is care­ful to pro­tect pri­vate com­pa­nies that own the planes from un­fair com­pe­ti­tion in the in­dus­try and even from com­pe­ti­tion from the gov­ern­ment.There’s an ac­tual law that pro­tects pri­vate in­dus­try from un­due gov­ern­ment en­croach­ment on its turf.

The best ex­am­ple of this is a mas­sive pri­vately owned jet liner based out of Colorado Springs that is equipped to drop nearly 20,000 gal­lons of slurry on fires, but the U.S. For­est Ser­vice has granted a lim­ited, call-when­needed con­tract only al­low­ing it to drop loads of 5,000 gal­lons.

That’s fed­eral bu­reau­cracy at its finest.

Such fed­eral com­pli­ca­tions be­gan in the late ’80s when For­est Ser­vice of­fi­cial Fred A. Fuchs be­gan “sell­ing” five pri­vate com­pa­nies dozens of ex­cess or re­tired military planes. In a trial that ul­ti­mately sent Fuchs to prison for 20 months be­fore his con­vic­tion was over­turned, it was shown how newer planes were traded for his­toric planes worth about $22 mil­lion less. Over the years many of the planes were used for pur­poses other than fight­ing fires.

It’s as though from that orig­i­nal scan­dal the agency never re­cov­ered. And now the in­dus­try holds the gov­ern­ment hostage with a core pub­lic safety ser­vice.

In 2002, fol­low­ing a spate of tragic ac­ci­dents, the For­est Ser­vice launched a blue-rib­bon panel that found the ag­ing fleet had an un­ac­cept­able safety record. Trag­i­cally, 136 crew mem­bers of large air tankers died be­tween 1958 and 2002. To put that into per­spec­tive, the re­port notes a sim­i­lar death rate among fire­fight­ers would be a star­tling 200 deaths a year.

In the decade af­ter that panel, sev­eral con­tracts were can­celed for safety concerns, yet an­other 15 crew mem­bers died in gov­ern­ment-con­tract large air tanker fleet crashes.

Which brings us to the For­est Ser­vice’s ef­forts to con­tract for next-gen­er­a­tion air­craft that are safer, faster and drop larger loads.

In 2013, the For­est Ser­vice awarded con­tracts for seven next-gen­er­a­tion air tankers, and an­other seven planes were added in 2015. In both cases the awarded con­tracts were chal­lenged by pri­vate com­pa­nies that weren’t se­lected, slow­ing the ar­rival of the planes dur­ing fire sea­son. The For­est Ser­vice is getting ready to is­sue an­other bid process — it’ll be a mir­a­cle if the re­sults aren’t chal­lenged.

It’s been frus­trat­ing to watch. But while the fed­eral gov­ern­ment seems un­will­ing or hand­i­capped by com­pli­cated bid re­quire­ments to ex­per­i­ment with a su­per-large tanker that can drop al­most four times more slurry in a sin­gle pass than other planes, Colorado’s rel­a­tively new aerial fire agency is.

“There’s quite a bit of skep­ti­cism in the world of very large air tankers,” said Vince Wel­baum, chief of the Avi­a­tion Unit of the state’s Divi­sion of Fire Pre­ven­tion and Con­trol. “It would be more of an eval­u­a­tion con­tract to see if it can do what we hope it will do. There’s got to be some ef­fec­tive­ness when you drop 18,000 gal­lons.”

Wel­baum said there are lim­i­ta­tions to what a 747 can do. The plane must fly higher than other planes when it drops its load, for ex­am­ple, and no one is sure what that means for putting out or sup­press­ing fires.

That type of re­search is ex­actly what the world of aerial fire­fight­ing needs.

Mul­ti­ple gov­ern­ment stud­ies over the years have be­moaned the fact that there is no data to show how ef­fec­tive aerial at­tacks on fires are, or whether water or slurry works best, or whether there’s any ben­e­fit to us­ing planes dur­ing large, outof-con­trol fires.

Colorado is uniquely po­si­tioned for its state agency to fill that void, to push norms, to bat­tle fires through the night, and to drop nearly 20,000 gal­lons of water and see what hap­pens.

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