5 Sep 2009, 5:24am
The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Air Tankers, Politics, and Turf

The following editorial and comments appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express last month. We thought they were interesting, and not just because of the clever use of terms like “idiocracy”, “acornists”, and “large women”. Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to RRsue and the YP Times for the link up.

‘Fire bombers’ needed now

Idaho Mountain Express Editorial, August 12, 2009 [here]

A bureaucratic snag that doesn’t make sense to most mortals is holding up $2.5 billion needed to expand and upgrade the Agriculture Department’s fleet of aerial firefighting tankers.

Why? Because Congress wants more detailed justification.

Justification? Hundreds of pages of statistics and graphs available now show conclusively the Forest Service aviation operation is in dire need. Of the 44 tankers it had in 2002, only 19 are now flying, some 50 years old. The others were grounded as unsafe because of age.

So, the agency turns to leasing or renting from a pool of some 800 privately owned fire bombers and helicopters, plus a few U.S. Air Force tankers, at premium rates.

Because of the shortage of Forest Service tankers, about 150 fires that were not attacked early led to additional suppression costs of between $300 million and $450 million. A large new air tanker reportedly costs about $75 million.

Fighting wildfires is big and costly business. Considering just fires of 40,000 acres or more in 2008, tentative costs were estimated at $706 million. During the year, air tankers dropped more than 12 million gallons of retardant.

States such as Idaho, whose spectacular forests always are vulnerable to rapacious fires, should pressure Congress to end the delay and get on with procuring new aircraft.

Aircraft deliveries take time, but fires don’t wait. The federal government shouldn’t risk destruction of entire communities, whose restoration can take years, in wrangling over saving a dime.


The comments below are from the readers of mtexpress.com and in no way represent the views of Express Publishing Inc.


Duncan – Ketchum, Id 08/14/09 - I am a former air tanker pilot. I worked for the company that lost two aircraft in ‘02 due to structural failure. Currently I am flying as an “Air Attack,” and I’m flying on the La Brea fire in Santa Barbara County.

Your article is mostly correct. In 2002 we actually had 56 air tankers available nationwide as well as many others owned by individual states. Currently, there are 16 available nationwide. This does not include the ill-advised DC-10 and 747 VLAT (Very Large Air Tankers). There has been a proliferation of the smaller SEATS (single Engine Air Tankers) and massive expansion in the helicopter capability. California has upgraded and modernized its fleet of 16 S-2’s and converted them to turbine engines, increasing the capacity and capability.

Fire fighting is unfortunately very political. In its sweeping decision of 2002 the FEDS threw out the baby with the bathwater. Fearing liability, all tankers were grounded and only the P2’s and P-3’s were eventually allowed to return to service after much lobbying by those who had the right contacts. ALL Douglass aircraft, the 4’s, 6’s and 7’s were denied returning to service. This deprived the country of nearly 20 capable and reliable aircraft. The hypocrisy of the FEDS became apparent when they continue to fly the Douglass DC-3 converted to the Bassler BT-67 used by the smokejumpers. Politics.

There are literally dozens of P-3 aircraft sitting in the desert at Davis Mothan outside of Tuscon. These aircraft will NOT be released to the few remaining tanker operators, because private individuals are not allowed, by law, to possess front line military aircraft.

Ultimately, what is going to happen is the responsibility for flying air tankers will be assumed by the military at ten times the costs and one tenth of the effectiveness. It’s not the military’s fault, and I do respect them, it’s just that they rotate personnel and their protocols prevent them from being effective. This is an inherently hazardous business and is best left to the professionals.

What is truly needed to avert this folly is for a National Fire Service to be set up and run as an agency similar to the Coast Guard. This will never happened either, the USFS derives the greatest portion of its budget from firefighting and will not willingly give up this cash cow. They will continue to fight over turf, hoard resources, and generally do a poor job. So poor in fact, that their performance would get them fired in the private sector. But thank god for government employment. It is a perfect example of the “Peter Principle” in action. I have witnessed it over 12 years in my career and frankly am disgusted by the waste and inefficiency.

Yes, the Castle Rock fire was a great success. But remember, it was the political clout of this valley that brought in all the tools and made that fire a national priority. This does not happen everywhere and is not the norm.

Those of us who fly the planes on fire in this country live a ground hog day existence.
Some things never change.


Duncan – Ketchum, Idaho 08/20/09 - The sad thing is, I am working on the La Brea fire with Pincha-Tulley. I took OPS up for a recon yesterday early, we were told, “kill it, do whatever it takes to knock this sucker out.” Five hours later a NIMO Team showed up and said shut down the tanker base, you are spending too much money. They cut off food, and water. Never mind that contractually, food and water are provisions of the service we provide.

So then we had to leave the base and go to town and buy our own food on our own time.
Sounds not so bad right?

We”ll guess what happened when all the flight crews were in town having lunch at different restaraunts on their own dime? If you guessed the fire blew up and crossed the containment lines, then you win… more tax dollars spent.

The effort to save money on meals (around $1000.00 for all base personnel) ended up costing over $75,000.00 because of terrain compromised and increased efforts after everyone made it back from town.

Now the dispatchers, mind you, are not subject to these rules, they are feds, are well fed, and if you are not careful, they will eat not only your lunches while you are up flying, but if you try and grab any leftovers, they will eat your fingers. These large women are the problem, they are entrenched bureaucrats who scream discrimination if you try and get them to do their jobs, for which they are paid.

Grabass is the name of the game. They can all be found in the bar at the nearest hotel after sunset. Meanwhile, we pilots can be found walking along the highway to the nearest Taco Bell to try and get some sort of nourishment before we fly again in the morning.

So the fire has once again escaped containment lines, more money is being spent. Lives are at risk. And they shut down the base Tuesday afternoon, sent everyone home. Ooopps, Wednesday morning they brought everyone back, and had to take the time to reset what they had spent the previous day undoing. All in the name of saving money, hundreds of thousands more was spent.

The “Feral” government is the Peter Principle in action. There are good people trying to fight the idiocracy of “Change we can believe in,” but these voices are drowned out by the acornists who call us dinosaurs.

I am truly afraid we are witnessing the last days of the American republic. We will soon be a backwater banana republic where buffoons like like Pat Murphy are our leaders, pied pipers leading us all over a cliff. Goodnight Gracie


NOrdas – NV 09/02/09 - Duncan, your comments are factual and correct. Those from the aviation know truth. The P-3 are the perfect solution. But that’s only if you wanted to put the out fires. (loaded Wass in Minden) I knew that day it would change aviation fire fighting forever, but not for the better.

I also witnessed the Feds actions against the State of Nevada NDF pilots. False charges and destroying pilots careers are not becoming attribute of the federal government. Getting rid of pilots and grounding aircraft is the fuel for a spending out-of-control intoxicated government.

I too share your disgust… glad I am no longer in the business!



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