WASHINGTON — Several attempts by Sen. Mark Udall to help Colorado fight forest fires have backfired, including his effort to acquire funding the state already received and his insistence on using retired military aircraft that critics say are not suited for battling blazes.
Udall is pressuring the Forest Service to take 14 soon-to-be retired C-27J Spartans off the Air Force’s hands to create its own fleet to drop fire retardant on forest fires.
The Colorado Democrat says the Forest Service can modernize the C-27Js at no cost to the taxpayer, but critics say it will cost millions and take several years to retrofit the Italian-made turboprop-powered cargo planes, that have never been used to fight forest fires.
Tom Eversole, executive director of the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Association, said there is no tank in existence to fit the plane for slurry transport. It would cost at least $5 million to design and equip each plane, he estimated.
“The Air Force, they don’t want to fly them anymore for various reasons, so they are basically sending them to the bone yard,” Eversole said.
“My argument to Udall was, if they gave you those airplanes tomorrow they are not going to be flying on a fire in Colorado for three to five years,” Eversole said.
“He can make all the noises he wants, but if you want aircraft on the fires this year the companies are prepared to do that, and they don’t have to wait for Air Force airplanes that may never get transferred,” Eversole said.
Complicating matters, the small size of the C-27J Spartans dictates that only tanks with a capacity to carry 1,800 gallons of slurry can be installed. The Forest Service recently mandated in its modernization program that all of its contractors update their fleet with tanks that can carry 3,000-gallon tanks costing the companies millions of dollars to get planes ready by this summer.
“It’s a bad precedent,” Eversole said.
The Forest Service plans to contract with five companies to provide aerial firefighting measures, but because of the new modernization requirements only one plane is ready for use.
“I’ve been on your doorstep about the next generation contracts … I will also be on the doorstep of the Air Force if this doesn’t happen as quickly as it needs to happen. I want you to know we’ve got to get this done,” Udall told the Forest Service last week during a Senate hearing.
“What I hear you saying is you want to fight 21st Century fires with 21st Century aircraft,” Udall said. “We’re fighting 21st Century fires with Korean War era aircraft we need the next generation aircraft at our disposal and we need these C-27Js at our disposal.”
In addition to the $70 million tank costs, the Forest Service plans to contract out for pilots to operate their retrofitted fleet and taxpayers will have to foot the bill for costly repairs and maintenance.
“The Forest Service says they are free, but they’re not free,” Eversole said. “If the Air Force can’t afford to operate these things, what makes you think the Forest Service can?”
Meanwhile, Tom Harbour, national director of fire aviation management for the Forest Service, told the Missoulian newspaper that until the C-27Js are retrofitted to fight fires, they would use the aircraft to transport fire jumpers.
Fires blazing through Colorado this week are already to blame for two deaths, the destruction of 400 homes, and tens of thousands of acres burned.
Ironically, one of the first planes to come to the state’s aid was the P2V, a Korean-era, and forest fire tested aircraft operated by Neptune Aviation.
Udall saw another proposal of his go down in flames this week when the Senate refused to even consider his amendment to the farm bill declaring forest fires a natural disaster on par with floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, in order to give the state access to disaster aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
That’s because the president already has that power to declare forest fires a disaster area, the trigger for releasing federal tax dollars to rebuild structures and infrastructure, and gave Colorado $19 million in aid for last summer’s widespread destruction.
“If your house gets burnt up in a fire and the president declares it a disaster area, you are eligible for the same kind of FEMA help that you would be if it were a hurricane,” said Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary for natural resources and environment for President George W. Bush.
Udall was also banking on FEMA funds to offset a 37 percent cut proposed by the Obama administration for fuel reduction projects next year to prevent forest fires.
“My amendment also ensures that Colorado receives FEMA support to mitigate wildfire risks and address the damage wildfires do,” Udall said in announcing his measure.
“Colorado experienced two of its most devastating wildfires in recent memory last year. My amendment helps ensure that mitigation dollars will be available to proactively reduce risk and help protect Colorado communities from catastrophic wildfire and post-fire flooding,” Udall said.
Rey suggested Udall’s legislative priorities were misplaced, and predicted Congress would reject the lawmaker’s measure.
Instead of creating a new fire prevention bureaucracy in the Homeland Security Department that duplicates existing programs at the Interior Department and Forest Service, Udall should have been lobbying the Obama administration to fund the existing programs, Rey said.