CHEYENNE, Wyo. — President Barack Obama signed a bill this week hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation's rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24 million. The same day, two C-130 military transport planes designed for that very purpose sat on a tarmac in Cheyenne, shrouded in an eye-watering haze from a raging Colorado wildfire just a 15-minute flight away.
In all, eight workhorse C-130s stand ready to fight destructive wildfires around the country — but all are grounded due to rules governing the use of the nation's aerial firefighting resources. The new purchases, meanwhile, won't help firefighters battling destructive blazes in Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere in the West for weeks, if not months.
"Getting into large, multiple wildfire scenarios, there's just not enough (aircraft) to go around in the current state," said Chuck Bushey, past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, a professional association of people who fight wildfires.
Obama signed the bill Wednesday at the urging of Colorado's congressional delegation, which was quick to praise the move.
Three planes are supposed to be ready by mid-August: Two BAe-146s from Missoula, Mont.-based Neptune Aviation Services, Inc., and one BAe-146 from Minden, Nev.-based Minden Air Corp. The BAe-146s are jet-powered.
The three will bring the Forest Service fleet to 20 large tanker planes — a figure that includes the lease of eight planes on Monday from the state of California, the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre, and a private DC-10 based in California. Another 11 tankers, including the C-130s, can be called into service.
"This is a major milestone in our efforts to modernize the large air tanker fleet," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a release about the President's bill signing.
Still, the eight Air National Guard C-130 cargo planes fitted to drop slurry sit in Wyoming, Colorado, California and North Carolina. The Forest Service says it may request the eight planes only when all private tanker planes already are fighting fires or are unavailable for use. The C-130 crews insist they're ready to roll on 48 hours' notice.
"We have no limiting factors in terms of personnel or equipment to respond," said Deidre Forster, spokeswoman for the Wyoming National Guard.
The C-130 has long been a staple of the nation's military, carrying troops, equipment and disaster relief worldwide. It is praised for its agility and durability.
Starting in the 1970s, C-130s were fitted with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems — devices that carry 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant slurry that can be dropped in 5 seconds while a C-130 swoops as low as 150 feet above the ground. By contrast, the new planes authorized by Obama can carry 2,400 gallons of slurry.
Last year, the C-130s flew wildfire missions in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon and Mexico. Wyoming's MAFFS have been deployed as far away as Indonesia, in 1997, and most recently in Texas and Oregon last September.
But the Wyoming MAFFS just can't fly from Cheyenne, where the Wyoming Air National Guard is based. The airport is not among those designated as official staging area for attacking wildfires — and it lacks built-in infrastructure for reloading planes with retardant.
The MAFFS units are installed on the planes when they're called into duty and can be removed to free up the planes for other uses.
The Forest Service, meanwhile, says it has all the air power it needs to work on northern Colorado's 78-square-mile High Park Fire.
The cost of the MAFFS varies depending on how much they're used — anywhere from less than $2 million per year to almost $10 million over last year's busy fire season.
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