Politicians get involved in air tanker debate

DC-10 air tanker, 6-11-2011
Air Tanker 911, a DC-10, drops retardant on the Wallow fire to reinforce the fireline above Greer, AZ, 6-11-2011. Photo by Jyson Coil. Credit: US Forest Service, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

It is rarely a good thing when politicians start providing advice about firefighting tactics and strategy. Too often they think air tankers and helicopters put out fires, as you can see in the excerpt below from an article at KXAN.com about the fires in Texas. Aircraft don’t put out fires, but in some cases they can slow them down enough to allow firefighters on the ground be more effective. They are simply one tool in the proverbial tool box.

…”The DC-10 got here in time to put out the fire just west of Houston but unfortunately not for Bastrop, and that’s something I’m going to chair oversight hearings on Homeland Security to get to the bottom of why can’t we more rapidly deploy?” Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said Monday at ABIA .

The DC-10 is used to drop retardant around the fire area to prevent it from spreading more. The aircraft arrived last week but sat at the airport because the pilots needed the FAA-mandated two-day downtime after a full two weeks of flying, fighting fires in California.

McCaul chairs the Congressional subcommittee that oversees all Department of Homeland Security operations. One of his main concerns is with the National Forest Service not having an exclusive contract with 10 Tanker, which owns the DC-10, or other private firefighting services.

The congressman said exclusive use agreements would ensure long-term use of such aircraft to fight fires, meaning the company would have money to hire extra crews to be on standby, not to mention having fire retardant systems ready to go near fire-prone areas.

From an article at brenhambanner.com:

One of two DC-10s and half of the military’s fleet of eight C-130s are now indefinitely stationed in Texas to fight wildfires, National Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell assured U.S. Michael McCaul after McCaul expressed deep concerns about delayed response to wildfires that burned more than 34,000 acres in Bastrop County.

The Forest Service committed to keep the DC-10 and C-130s stationed at Austin Bergstrom International Airport for the foreseeable future while fire danger remains high, according to McCaul’s office.

“We’ve known and Washington has known that Texas has been a tinderbox for months,” said McCaul (R-Texas). “The right approach is to have federal aviation assets strategically prepositioned to deploy within hours instead of days.

“This has to be a priority moving forward and I plan to explore this in an oversight hearing.”

Exclusive use agreements would contractually obligate tanker planes such as 10 Tanker’s DC-10s long-term. In turn, the agreement would ensure a revenue stream, allowing the company to hire extra crews who are on standby and to build multiple fire retardant loading systems within striking distance of the most fire-prone areas.

“When I toured Waller County they said the DC-10 was like ‘the cavalry coming in’ and it made a difference in Bastrop in the run it made before it was diverted,” McCaul said. “Had it been on the ground here a week ago it would have made a huge difference.”

Taking firefighting advice from a politician is a scary proposition, but maybe some good can come out of this if the mismanagement of the federal air tanker fleet gets more attention in Washington.

Check out the video below of the DC-10 dropping on the Riley Road fire in Texas. Everything gets very red. It was uploaded September 12, 2011.

The video below shows the DC-10 dropping near Panorama Village north of Houston, Texas. It was uploaded to YouTube September 10, 2011.

Here is a link to another video showing the DC-10 in action recently in Texas:

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Politicians get involved in air tanker debate”

  1. I agree that a shift should be looked at. I had just about lost all hope that the USFS would give the VLATS a fair shot. They have denied the fire fighter on the ground long enough.

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  2. Nothing against (or taking away from) the situation in Texas (or whatever state it is this year), but the federal air tanker fleet is financed by allocations to the federal wildland fire agencies for the protection of federal lands.

    Maybe a paradigm shift is needed?

    Maybe the federal airtanker fleet should be financed by FEMA and DHS (deep pockets) since they are regularly diverted away from their “contracted mission” of protecting federal wildlands… and are often re-directed to support the states and local agencies in their emergencies.

    — McCaul (R-Texas). “The right approach is to have federal aviation assets strategically prepositioned to deploy within hours instead of days.—

    Sounds weird to have a TX politician thinking that way about State reliance on the Federal Govt. But hey, maybe he’ll stop bitching and start leading towards a solution… and somehow find the funding if it is so important to HIS state and others.

    It’s obviously way beyond an issue that “land managers” within the Forest Service can cope with. It IS an issue of national significance that DHS and FEMA should be dealing with in terms of sharing $$$ to develop a modern federal airtanker fleet. In the same thought, why is the entire federal wildland fire program still being (mis)managed and underfunded by the federal land management agencies

    It’s the 21st Century… time for new ideas and new leaders.

    Just a thought…………. IMHO

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