Eight of the government's biggest firefighting airplanes sat on the tarmac for weeks as fires erupted across the Rockies last month because incident commanders first called in smaller, privately owned aircraft to bombard flames with water and retardant.
The military's C-130 tankers were not called to duty until June 25, weeks after large fires began destroying homes and causing deaths across the West. The planes flew multiple missions in Colorado before one crashed fighting the White Draw fire in South Dakota on July 1, killing four members of its crew. The cause of the C-130 crash remains under investigation.
The remaining planes were temporarily grounded but resumed flying today.
Federal law prohibits fire managers from calling in the military planes until they first call in private aircraft leased to the government. The law has been the subject of some debate in the aftermath of the recent fires.
Beth Lund, leader of the national-level Type 1 Incident Management Team that managed the 87,284-acre High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colo., says that contrary to popular belief, the bigger planes aren't necessarily better.
"Fires don't get put out by red stuff coming out of the air," she says. "It's boots on the ground."
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., calls the U.S. Forest Service "negligent" for not deploying the tankers sooner. He says there's no doubt homes would have been saved if the military tankers had been called for sooner. He says firefighters have told him that one large tanker could easily stop or significantly slow a fire when it's only a few acres but that cost and deployment time make them a last line of defense.
"The people on the ground are crying for help," Gallegly says. "I think they have a better sense of what they need than someone sitting at a desk."
The National Guard's Mobile Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) slide into a C-130 cargo plane and can drop 3,000 gallons of water or red retardant slurry onto a fire. In comparison, the first privately owned air tankers usually called to fires can drop 820 gallons of retardant but are more maneuverable.
Forest Service critics such as retired Los Alamos National Laboratory astrophysicist Chick Keller say the agency clings to outdated firefighting methods because the American public and Congress refuse to fund and deploy modern aerial firefighting techniques such as drones and large tankers such as MAFFS.
"We spent $1 billion last year in the United States on fire suppression, and we didn't get much suppression — we just lost forests and houses," says Keller, former director of the University of California's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics and co-founder of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center in Los Alamos, N.M. "The Air Force should do what it does best: protect Americans."
The High Park wildfire that started June 9 destroyed at least 259 homes and killed a woman before two military MAFFS were activated June 25. Fort Collins resident Chrissa Allison says she watched as nearby homes burned and wondered why the military planes didn't join in sooner.
"If that isn't an emergency, then what the heck is?" Allison says.
"Just because they are the biggest tool doesn't make them the best tool," says Reghan Cloudman, a U.S Forest Service spokeswoman. "Air tankers don't put out fires. Firefighters put out fires."
Once activated, the two MAFFS joined the fight against the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs that killed two people and destroyed 346 homes.
Lund says she's comfortable with her decision not to use the tankers on the High Park fire once they became available. She says firefighters with hand tools, fire engines and bulldozers successfully protected hundreds of homes: "The real heroes are the guys on the ground."
Gallegly and Keller say proper use of very large tankers could make them the first line of defense, not the last. "They can do in 30 seconds what it takes five bulldozers three days to do," Gallegly says. "They can do a job no one else can do."
Hughes reports for the Fort Collins Coloradoan.