The evidence is obvious. 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.
Isn’t it time to think “outside the box?” Recognize that the Forest Service is not the only government agency capable of fighting forest fires.
Isn’t it time to consider using our military instead of the Forest Service to fight forest fires?
With the military, they have it all — the men, the pilots, the right size aircraft, and critically important, in sufficient 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.)
Assuming the change has been made and is matured with a few seasons perfecting the system consider this scenario: About 30 minutes ago, a fire was reported and is now grown to under 10 acres in size. Just arriving at the fire site are 20 very large C-5A aircraft that have been converted to tankers with dumping rate of 60,000 gallons per minute (gpm) or more of water. (Currently in military inventory there are 85 of these old birds assuming all were converted and other types if necessary.)
Along with these loaded aircraft is a commander flying in a small jet who is in total charge directing each aircraft where and when to dump its load while keeping these planes from colliding.
With this much extinguishing power, the blaze should be extinguished in the first pass.
The Commander also has authority to call for additional aircraft from another district if he deems it justified. The goal is to extinguish all fires in the same day they are reported — and all from the air.
It means that there will be no more “major” forest fires as they will all be extinguished in their infancy. One thing is certain, the fire will be extinguished ASAP.
To clarify, the responsibility of the Forest Service is to spot and report all forest fires. Their other responsibility is, after the fire is essentially extinguished, to transport a few firefighters to the site to extinguish any smoldering embers and make sure the fire does not reignite.
The military are active duty personnel, who will 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, even quarters for the crews.
All this will be at a normal military base that is not too distant from the forest that they are to protect.
Another critical item is the size of the fire each concept extinguishes.
Although conjecture, the military will 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 50 acres, and possible even less than 10 acres.
Compare this to the Forest Service plan to establish a fire line requiring two to three days to establish, then 10 days to weeks to extinguish the fire; and during this time, it has grown to perhaps 2,000 acres or more, while also burning structures, and possibly taking a life or two.
Also consider, because of its high mobility and quick response, large aircraft configured as tankers must 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 be in an uncoordinated manner. From TV news clips, it appears they dump their loads randomly with no follow-up of other aircraft. 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.
A major problem with using large aircraft in this role is their minimum flying speed of around 150 mph. (To slow the aircraft some, deploying full flaps and slats may be considered but just during the dumping operation.)
To compensate these aircraft will need a very high dumping rate from 60,000 gpm to over 100,000 gpm thus emptying their tanks in 30 seconds or less.
To maximize their water payload, the fuel carried may be restricted to the mission requirement. This will add several thousand pounds of water to the water payload.
It is reported that the Italians use their military to fight forest fires so this concept will not be unique to the U.S.
In conclusion, if the public wants to get serious about extinguishing all forest fires quickly, there is but one option, the military.
Joseph C. Coomer is a retired aircraft engineer who lives in Oak Harbor.