Year after year, one terrible fire season is followed by another terrible fire season.
In the last 50 years there has been no significant improvement in how the Forest Service fights forest fires.
Maintaining the status quo means there is no hope now or in the future for any improvements. To have change, there must be something done to cause change, but there is nothing done.
It is time to think outside the box and recognize that the Forest Service is not the only government agency capable of fighting forest fires. It is time to consider using our military instead of the Forest Service.
With the military, they have it all, the men, the pilots, the right size aircraft and critically important, in enough numbers to extinguish all forest fires very rapidly.
The only added item is a budget to pay for this extra responsibility and other associated costs. This is a major change and must be approved by our congress and our president, but with its obvious advantages, their approval should be automatic.
To clarify, the responsibility of the Forest Service is to spot and report all forest fires. Their other responsibility comes after the fire is essentially extinguished. It can transport a few fighters to the site to extinguish any smoldering embers and make sure the fire does not reignite.
The military are active duty personnel, who would be responsible for all aspects of the aircraft involved. They are responsible for the infrastructure needed, the bays where the aircraft will be refueled and reloaded with water, including the large water storage tanks. All this will be at a normal military base that is not too distant from the forest they are to protect.
The use of the military makes both logical and fiscal sense. The financial picture in the first year or so is clouded with converting these aircraft to tankers. There would be engineering costs, development costs, training costs, and other costs.
But after one year or so, when extinguishing all forest fires quickly will be routine, one can predict savings of more 60 percent just in man-hours alone verses the current system. This excludes the value of forests saved, homes and other structures saved, and even a few priceless lives that are not lost.
Another critical item is the size of the fire each concept extinguishes. Although conjecture, the military would have extreme priority to attacking the fire ASAP with as much water as possible resulting in a fire that is extinguished ASAP.
This immediate action restricts the fire’s growth to less than 100 acres, and possible even less than 50 acres. This is done in the same day that the fire is reported and all from the air.
Compare this to the Forest Service plan to establish a fire line, requiring one to three days to establish, then ten days to weeks to extinguish the fire and during this time, it has grown to perhaps 2,000 acres or more.
Also consider, because of their high mobility and quick response, large aircraft configured as tankers would be the optimum tools. The Forest Service has none and must rely on a bag of mixed aircraft almost all with insufficient payloads provided by contractors who use them in what appears to uncoordinated manner. The net result is their effectiveness is much less than expected and, in the opinion of many, their use is largely a waste of time and money.
Assume the military would choose the C-5A Galaxy. There are 85 in inventory so there is no acquisition cost.
This aircraft is around 40 years old, which is close to their design life and the military must be considering retiring them to the Arizona boneyard soon.
If assigned to this duty, many of these C-5As may be permanently configured to firefighter tankers with firefighting their sole mission. In the firefighter role, it is doubtful if their use would exceed 300 hours a year and with proper maintenance, they should last for many seasons to come.
This proposal requires a commander flying in a small aircraft at the fire site, who is in total charge. A major responsibility of his is safety, making sure that the participating aircraft don’t collide and being acutely aware of other dangers.
The commander commands each pilot where to fly, at what altitude, and where and when to dump his load. Because coordination and timing are so critical, the commander may hold several aircraft in a queue and when they are all in position, he may direct a line of these aircraft to attack a specific fire area, one after the other. The goal is to totally extinguish the fire in the targeted area and making sure that the fire never recovers.
The same scene is repeated several times for different areas until all the fire is totally extinguished everywhere. Finally, the commander has full authority to request additional aircraft from other bases if he deems it necessary.
If the public really wants to get serious about extinguishing all forest fires quickly, there is but one option, the military.
Joseph Coomer is a retired Boeing engineer.