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Why is the Supertanker absent in fighting Western fires?

By | July 3rd, 2012

“We have been putting everything we have into trying to deal with what’s one of the worse fires that we’ve seen here in Colorado,” said Pres. Obama on Friday, while visiting the Waldo Canyon blaze in Colorado, which has taken two lives and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Everything? Well, maybe not.

9News in Denver recently interviewed Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about “Why the U.S. Forest Service is not using the biggest tankers available?” You can see that interview at this link, including Vilsack’s reponse to criticism from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who in May said that the Forest Service “needs a sense of urgency” in upgrading its fleet.

Meanwhile, Evergreen International Aviation, which owns the 20,000-gallon Supertanker, issued a statement on Friday, explaining why their plane is sitting in a hangar in Arizona, rather than dropping water and slurry on wildfires.  It reads, in part:

“2. There have been recent changes to the US Forest Service procurement policies. Today, only small businesses are eligible for contract awards concerning air tanker assets; Evergreen is not a small business and, therefore, is excluded from consideration for any award.

“3. The US Forest Service’s specification for Next Generation Air Tanker aircraft limits tank size to 5,000 gallons. The Supertanker’s tanks hold about 20,000 gallons, which is considered outside the USFS specification. The USFS just awarded contracts to four small businesses with aircraft equipped with these smaller tanks, and excluded the Evergreen Supertanker. Since World War II, tank capacities have been in the 3,000 to 5,000 gallon range, yet we continue to face the growing threat from mega fires today. We believe the Supertanker represents an overwhelming response to this growing threat.”

Evergreen also notes that it can’t afford to run the plane on an on-call basis, but requires a retainer for it to be profitable.  More detail at Watts Up With That.

The plane seems to have proven its worth over Los Angeles, Mexico, and Israel, so its absence at least should prompt the following after-action questions for the USFS:

1) Will a review of the western fires and response address whether an aircraft like the Evergreen Supertanker would have helped contain the blaze?

2) Will the U.S. Forest Service provide a thorough explanation of why firefighting aircraft are being limited to 5,000 gallons? From the 9News interview, it appears that the Forest Service is already discounting the usefulness of the plane. It should explain why.

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