- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft outfitted with a modular airborne firefighting system crashed in South Dakota on Sunday, killing four. Meanwhile, a supertanker with a much larger capacity than any aircraft flying is sitting idle as fires continue to rage in the West. That’s how government doesn’t work.

America is suffering through one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in years. A combination of drought and high temperatures has created prime fire-risk conditions. Fires have burned or are burning in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and notably in Colorado, where over 300 homes were destroyed near Colorado Springs and thousands had to be evacuated.

The busy fire season has strained the country’s aerial-tanker fleet. Fourteen privately owned heavy tankers are fighting the blazes under government contract, and eight Air Force aircraft were pressed into emergency service when the private-tanker fleet reached its limit. Seven more tankers are online to begin operation in mid-August, which gives little comfort to those whose homes or ranches are threatened with imminent destruction.

The government could bring significant new assets to bear immediately. Evergreen International Aviation, based in McMinnville, Ore., owns and operates a fire-fighting supertanker adapted from a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Its capabilities far exceed those of any firefighting aircraft currently being employed. A specially outfitted C-130 like the one that crashed Sunday can release 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in a line under half-a-mile long. The supertanker can drop 20,000 gallons in a line 100 yards wide and 4.5 miles long. One supertanker mission has the firefighting equivalent of all eight Air Force C-130s combined.

The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t revealed why it’s not using the supertanker. One reason may be that air-tanker contracts are only awarded to small businesses, and Evergreen is too large to qualify. The supertanker cost $50 million to develop and build, which presents a Catch-22; a small business couldn’t operate it, while a business big enough to do so can’t get the contract.

Bureaucratic myopia may also be a factor. The Forest Service envisions the official next generation air tanker reservoir size at 5,000 gallons, while the supertanker is four times larger. Government requests written to meet the lower standard automatically exclude aircraft that exceed it. Cost may also be a factor; the supertanker can only be economically viable under an exclusive-use agreement with the Forest Service. This may be more expensive than a call-when-needed agreement, but as the current crisis illustrates, maintaining a robust firefighting capability only seems costly until you need it. It is far less expensive than the hundreds of millions of dollars of damage the fires have done already.

On Friday during a visit to the scene of the disaster in Colorado, President Obama said, “We have been putting everything we have into trying to deal with what’s one of the worse fires that we’ve seen.” If only that were true.

The Washington Times