…the U.S. Forest Service said, “nope, no can do.” Deployment of the Super Tanker was delayed last year while fires raged in Montana, the Pacific Northwest and California because the Forest Service set an arbitrary limit on fire suppressant drops of 5,000 gallons.
by Marjorie Haun
Some of the worst wildfires in Colorado history have raged this summer, with new ones flaring up daily. Thus far, the massive Spring Creek fire–the third worst in state history–has burned over 104,000 acres southwest of Pueblo, the Burro and 416 fires near Durango have burned over 61,000 acres, and other fires burning in central and northern Colorado have consumed more than 40,000 acres. For several weeks, wildland firefighters have been battling the 416 fire which is still only 45 percent contained, and there is no end in sight for the Spring Creek fire, which today is only 5 percent contained. A report in the Canon City Daily Record, described the Spring Creek blaze as “a flood of fire” which has destroyed more than 250 homes.
Beetle-killed trees cover hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado’s national forests, so dead trees and tinder-dry undergrowth combined with ongoing drought conditions portend a very long and dangerous wildfire season in the state. But like all western states, wildland fires in Colorado are an annual event, and the bad years have spurred a greater level of firefighting preparedness in the various agencies addressing seasonal blazes. The July 6, 1994 deaths of 14 “smoke jumpers” fighting the Storm King Mountain fire taught a hard lesson in how quickly wildfires can overtake a forest along with the men and women trying to save it.
So the State of Colorado worked for years to acquire a super tanker aircraft for fighting the biggest, hottest fires.
In August of 2015, Global SuperTanker, LLC announced that it would base one of its immense firefighting aircraft in Colorado Springs. A converted 747 with a 20,000 gal capacity would be housed in a 15,000 sq ft hanger, ready to go when called. But the U.S. Forest Service said, “nope, no can do.” Deployment of the Super Tanker was delayed last year while fires raged in Montana, the Pacific Northwest and California because the Forest Service set an arbitrary limit on fire suppressant drops of 5,000 gallons. A July 18, 2017 piece by the Gazette Editorial Board made the point:
As fires race through forests in the West, threatening property and lives, the world’s mightiest firefighting air tanker sits idle on a runway at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs.
Like Nero watching Rome burn, federal officials fiddle with a contract and won’t let the aircraft fly. The plane offers taxpayers the lowest per-gallon delivery of retardant for any fire requiring two or more planes, with an ability to drop nearly 20,000 gallons of retardant.
U.S. Forest Service officials won’t offer Springs-based Global SuperTanker Services a contract allowing more than 5,000 gallons of suppressant. Forest officials won’t say why.
A 5,000-gallon limit defeats the purpose of fighting fires with a 747, which can dramatically increase the efficiency and results of aerial attacks.
Finally, in August of last year, SuperTanker was activated to fight California’s devastating wildfires. And now, as some of the fiercest wildfires in Colorado history burn, SuperTanker is…?
According to a June 13 report in the Denver Post, the U.S. Forest Service, yet again, has been unable to come to an agreement on a contract to deploy the aircraft. The article states:
…arriving at an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to fight wildfires on territory the agency oversees, both in and outside of Colorado, has been no easy feat.
First, the Colorado Springs-based company had to challenge a capacity limit the Forest Service placed on the air tankers it would consider using to fight fires. In November, the U.S. Government Accountability Office took Global SuperTanker’s side when it determined that the Forest Service’s decision to exclude the jumbo air tanker — with its 19,200-gallon capacity split between two giant onboard tanks — from competing for federal contracts wasn’t reasonable.
Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said her agency will probably release requests for proposal for “large” and “very large” air tankers — which include the Global SuperTanker — by this Friday, but she said there is “no estimated time frame” for when contracts might be awarded or whether that might happen before the end of this year’s fire season.
But in a hopeful turn of events, if the SuperTanker gets the proper Forest Service-approved software from the proper Forest Service-approved company installed, it could be deployed in coming weeks. According to a July 5 9News report:
The Global SuperTanker 747, an aircraft designed to fight fires that is based in Colorado Springs, could be used throughout Colorado in the coming weeks.
The state announced Thursday that the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) signed a contract to use the plane when needed, but it’s not going to help with the fires burning right now.
According to a statement, the plane needs software that the U.S. Forest Service requires on air tankers The DFPC says it’s working with Latitude Geographies Group Ltd, a software company based in Canada that works on mapping technology.
A spokesperson told 9NEWS they did not know how long it would take to get the software but said it’s likely weeks, not months away – maybe even closer to days.
John Justman, a Commissioner from Mesa County in western Colorado, is exasperated by the Forest Service’s apparent lack of planning and foot-dragging. He says, “I don’t understand why the state of Colorado can’t use the large 747 air tankers to fight wildfires, and I also don’t understand why the Forest Service can’t come to an agreement on this. We have had enough catastrophic fires that we know we must plan ahead in order to fight these huge fires. I think we should use all available equipment so we can accomplish the job and save property lives in the State of Colorado.”
The SuperTanker is a beast of a firefighter, and has been proven effective in battling large scale wildland fires in varied places and terrains. But as wonderful as its capabilities are, it can’t hold a candle to the incompetence of bureaucrats.
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