With about 50 wildfires burning in the U.S., the U.S. Forest Service should be making every effort to deploy the most effective firefighting resources available.
But it appears red tape is fireproof.
In June, the Forest Service offered a contract for tanker aircraft that can drop water or fire suppressant over wide areas, but the contract limited the capacity of the planes to no more than 5,000 gallons.
That excluded a modified Boeing 747, operated by Colorado-based Global SuperTanker Services, capable of dropping more than 19,000 gallons over an area 200 feet wide and 2 miles long. CEO Jim Wheeler filed a protest with the Forest Service over the contract limitation, but the plane remains grounded in the U.S. today, despite the urgent need for every available resource.
On Monday, officials at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire, said it could take two more weeks to get the Detwiler fire near Yosemite National Park completely under control. It has already burned over 76,000 acres and 60-plus homes.
CalFire currently uses DC-10s to coat ridgetops with fire retardant. A spokesperson said the agency “absolutely” would use the 747, if it was approved.
But without a U.S. Forest Service contract, states will not be reimbursed for the cost of using the 747.
After initially refusing to comment, the Forest Service released a statement saying the high risk of aerial firefighting made it necessary to require private businesses that supply airtankers “to follow established interagency processes to demonstrate this capability.” The process can be completed “in less than three months,” the Forest Service said, noting that the Interagency Airtanker Board has been working with Global SuperTanker for the last year “to assist them in completing these processes.”
But the plane has been busy. Last November, the modified 747 flew non-stop to Israel to make drops on two wildfires, and earlier this year the aircraft was in Santiago, Chile, where it flew seven sorties and dropped more than 138,000 gallons of fire suppressant in support of the firefighters on the ground. That should count for something.
The fire retardant system on the 747 was first used in Alaska in 2009 and was fully certified by the Interagency Airtanker Board for a contract in 2013, when the company that developed the system went into bankruptcy, the hardware and intellectual property was purchased by Global and installed in a newer version of the 747.
Safety is no less important to the company that owns the plane than it is to the Forest Service, so this bureaucratic delay in the midst of one of the worst fire seasons in the last 10 years is stunning. If there is a public debate to be had here, let’s have it.
But movement on this is vital, we cannot afford bureaucratic fiddling while the Western U.S. burns.