PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A company with a Boeing 747 bomber that can drop more than 19,000 gallons of suppressant on wildfires says federal officials are keeping it grounded, putting homes and ground-based firefighters at risk.
Officials with Global SuperTanker Services filed a protest with the U.S. Forest Service late last month contesting a contract limiting firefighting aircraft to 5,000 gallons.
The limit appears to conflict with the Forest Service’s 2012 air tanker modernization strategy report identifying air tankers capable of dropping more than 8,000 gallons (30,300 liters) as a part of its firefighting effort.
Watchdog and firefighter advocacy groups say the agency might be trying to cut firefighting costs that have been using up its budget as wildfires have grown increasingly destructive in recent decades.
What the Forest Service says
In written comments to KOIN 6 News, Jennifer Jones with the Forest Service said the cost of battling the fires is dependent on where the fire is burning.
“If the fires are on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Forest Service would pay the costs, if they’re on land managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry, the state would pay the cost. If the fires are burning on land managed by more than one agency costs are typically shared,” Jones said.
She added the number of fires so far this season is below the 10-year-average but the number of acres burned is higher.
“Aerial firefighting is among the highest risk and costliest wildfire suppression missions,” she said. To that end, the airtankers must have approval from the Interagency Airtanker Board to make sure they comply with all safety requirements.
The Global Supertanker Service’s tanking system needed adjustment, and in January 2017 the “IAB provided Global Supertanker Services with a six month interim approval that expired June 15 to allow them to make modifications in their tanking system.”
Documentation was received June 19 and drop testing began, Jones told KOIN 6 News. Test results are pending.
The supertanker holds nearly twice the capacity of water or fire retardant, and California’s fire agency believes it can be more effective than current planes. They plan to use it once it gets federal approval.
Jim Wheeler, the CEO of Global SuperTanker, said, “You’re not going to put out a 4000 acre or larger fire with buckets and helicopters. It’s just physically impossible.”
But the supertanker is not cheap. It would cost upwards of $250,000 a day to operate.
Jones said the budget for wildfire suppression this year is $1.59 billion.
What Oregon and Washington believe
Traci Weaver with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest, told KOIN 6 News the fires in Oregon and Washington are battled the best way first responders know — using the right tools for the right job.
“People think they see the big retardant planes, they see the retardant drops and they think that’s what stops the fire,” Weaver said. “But then you got to get the firefighters, you know, boots on the ground, to really work that in.”
That combination of aerial and ground forces is what puts the wildfires out.
Carol Connolly, the spokesperson for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, said this area will fight fires as circumstances dictate.
“It could be helicopter doing bucket work, it could be single engine airtankers, it can be larger airtankers,” Connolly said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.