On Tuesday, May 20, the U.S. Forest Service announced it is adding four aircraft to its next-generation firefighting fleet in an effort to strengthen its response capabilities for the 2014 wildfire season, which already is underway in some states including Colorado and California.
The decision brings the total number of Forest Service aircraft to 21 large airtankers and more than 100 helicopters. The four new tankers were acquired through a lease with one or possibly several undisclosed private companies, and will be available to the Forest Service for a period of one year.
“We continue to increase and modernize the fleet of aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities,” said Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, in a news release. “These new planes will combine with our existing fleet to support our heroes on the ground fighting wildfires to keep our resources and communities safe.”
The new tankers include a second DC10 and three BAe-146s. The DC10 cruises at 430 miles per hour and can carry up to 11,600 gallons of fire retardant, the release stated. The BAe-146s cruise at about 350 mph and can carry more than 3,000 gallons of retardant.
The Forest Service also announced it entered into cooperative service agreements with the state of Alaska, Canada and the Department of Defense to call on as many as 17 more tankers if needed. The Department of Defense fleet includes eight retrofitted C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems.
MAFFS are portable fire retardant delivery systems that can be inserted into military C-130 aircraft without major structural modifications to convert them into airtankers when needed, according to the Forest Service website. The modified C-130s cruise at a similar speed and feature a similar payload as the BAe-146.
Airtankers do not necessarily extinguish wildfires, the release stated, but drop fire retardant that reduces the intensity and rate of spread, providing firefighters on the ground the opportunity to construct firelines.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who pressed the Forest Service to strengthen its firefighting fleet ahead of the 2014 wildfire season, praised the announcement. Udall had previously orchestrated legislation requiring the Forest Service to permanently add seven next-generation aircraft to its fleet, but private companies failed to meet the 2014 wildfire season deadline.
Although the addition of four tankers may seem nominal, Udall said Wednesday the aircraft are going to significantly boost the Forest Service’s ability to prevent small wildfires from turning into megafires, particularly in his home state of Colorado, which has seen more than its fair share of destructive wildfires in recent years.
“Wildfires march from south to north in a fairly predictable pattern,” Udall said. “As the fire season unfolds, officials can move the tankers to where they are needed, which also is why it’s important to have a full fleet.”
But Udall said the densely populated Front Range would not receive priority treatment from the newly expanded fleet, saying it’s just as important to protect lives, property and resources in Summit County as it is anywhere else in the state.
“Imagine if we had a fire near Lake Dillon,” Udall said. “It could affect the local water supply and have consequences on the local economy.
“But Summit County, being home to a significant source of water for the Front Range, is directly tied to the rest of the state. A megafire there could upset local economies and our special way of life in communities throughout Colorado.”
Although Udall touted Tuesday’s announcement as a significant win for Colorado and the rest of the nation, he said significant strides need to be taken to modernize the country’s aging fleet, which consists mainly of small, Korean War-era planes, and to ensure communities have resources to launch local wildfire mitigation projects.
To that end, Udall also has proposed the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would protect funding for wildfire education and mitigation projects from being diverted to wildfire fighting efforts, which has been a common occurrence in the past.
“It’s one of those situations where we’re robbing Peter to save Paul,” Udall said. “Historically, we’ve spent so much money fighting megafires that there’s nothing left to educate the public on fuels mitigation and to help fund community projects.”