Follow the Money If You Can Find It

By Lindsay Mohlere

Just as we’re on the cusp of dropping into another fire season that has been predicted to be as ugly as last year, it seems there are going to be a few holes in the roster of assets we have used to battle wildfire across the Western U.S.

And, of course, it’s a money thing.

Investors Pull the Plug — 747 Global Supertanker Shelved

In the last issue of TimberWest, we reported that the 747 Global Supertanker – Tanker 944 – was on the ground in Moses Lake, Washington, getting routine maintenance and a conversion to the retardant delivery from an analog controller to a digital version, a change that was requested by the National Interagency Aviation Committee. AeroTEC, an aerospace testing, engineering, and certification company, was contracted to make the conversions and other upgrades. 

At the time, an idea was floated by Washington State officials, Port of Moses Lake, and other partners to keep Tanker 944 stationed in Moses Lake at Grant County International, a massive former U.S. Air Force base. The plan was to see a regional organization formed among Northwest states and possibly British Columbia, to base Tanker 944 and other large firefighting aircraft in Moses Lake, with the purpose of flying firefighting missions from Wyoming to Alaska.

The Moses Lake facility would have become a hub for larger takers, increasing efficiency and effectiveness throughout the West.

Most large air tankers carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant. The 747 can carry far more retardant than any other. When first introduced, it was listed at 20,000 gallons. Then the federal government certified it at 19,200 gallons. More recently it was required to carry no more than 17,500 gallons. The second-largest capacity air tanker is the Russian-made Ilyushin IL-76 at 11,574 gallons. The DC-10 was allowed to hold 11,600 gallons, but a couple of years ago federal officials restricted its capacity to 9,400.

The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. agency that contracts for all large and very large air tankers used by the federal government, has been slow to warm up to the concept of tankers that can carry more than 5,000 gallons.

firebreakA Proven Asset Bites the Dust

Unfortunately, Tanker 944 hit the realities of 21st century financing and government myopia. At the end of April, the investor group that owns the 747 Supertanker informed federal and state officials in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and California that Tanker 944 is shutting down operations.

Supertanker executives have indicated that they are in discussions with prospective buyers, but no word of a sale or solution has been forthcoming. Since operating the Supertanker can cost up to $250,000 per day, along with the Call-When-Needed (CWN) contracting mess, and the burden of strict federal government regulations and certifications that make up the whole package, it’s no wonder the Tanker 944 investor group pulled the plug on the aircraft. As of now, it is unlikely Tanker 944 will be in the toolbox to fight wildfires in the Western U.S.

Again, It’s a Dollar Thing

In another development, the U.S. Forest Service is taking over the contracting for Interagency Firefighting Crews in Oregon. For the last five years, the Oregon Department of Forestry has handled the contracting, inking 51 companies for 235 crews. These crews were primarily focused on fires in Oregon and Washington but could also be deployed elsewhere when the need demanded.

When the contracting change was announced, many felt secure that the infinite wisdom of the federal government would somehow play out to be a benefit rather than the usual stick in the eye.

Unfortunately, when the Forest Service announced the list of wildland firefighting contractors, more than 120 crews were left off, leaving a gaping hole in the human resources firefighting bag. Many in the firefighting community are scratching their heads wondering how ODF is going to be adequately staffed to handle the upcoming fire season.

Many who have been passed over have requested “standby” status and asked the Fed to reverse course. But at this late date, no word has trickled down as to whether the crews will get their tickets punched.

If this year is anything like last year, and a remedy doesn’t come up, the politicians will be passing the buck and slapping their heads. Maybe they should use a cast iron frying pan.

Maybe a Dollar Short and a Day Late

Remember several months ago when Washington state lawmakers agreed to make a major investment in wildfire prevention and forest health?

The money – $500 million over the next five years – can’t come soon enough. As of April 30, Washington had already experienced 218 fires with more on the way. Unfortunately, the first two-year allotment of $125 million will not be of much help this fire season.

The funding is designated to provide wildfire response, forest restoration, and community resilience. It would fund 100 additional firefighters and two more airplanes that could help the state attack fires faster and more effectively. It would also help fund DNR’s Forest Health Strategic Plan.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will sign the bill, but the DNR won’t get the money until July, which means they can’t hire more firefighters, buy more planes, or implement statewide wildfire programs. Basically, the state will be stuck in the swamp without the boosted resources to attack the soon-to-be-in-our-lap fire season.

Obviously, the state is scrambling — just another example of where the realities of wildfire prevention and suppression collide with governmental bureaucracy. When you’ve got a raging inferno charging up the hill at 100 miles an hour, hell bent on incinerating thousands of forest acres, it’s no time to be a day late and a dollar short.

That’s a wrap.

Stay safe out there.

Talk back at [email protected].

(Source: USDA, Fire Aviation, ABC, Spokesman Review, The Drive, CalFire, ODF, Washington DNR.) 

TimberWest November/December 2013
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