Discussions are underway to change a decades-long restriction that has kept military tankers grounded while firefighters scrambled civilian aircraft to drop slurry on wildfires.
Army Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, said he’s talking with federal authorities about relaxing the requirement that all civilian resources be exhausted before firefighters can tap the Defense Department’s fleet of C-130 firefighting tankers.
“That is part of the conversation, yes,” said Jacoby, during a press conference with Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A law dating back more than 70 years — the Economy Act of 1932 — and Pentagon policies have kept the Defense Department from activating its fleet of eight C-130 firefighting aircraft until all of the civilian aerial resources have been used.
The requirement came to the forefront in the Pikes Peak region during Waldo Canyon fire that raged last summer.
While civilian tankers tried to slow the ever-spreading flames, two Air Force Reserve C-130 aircraft assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base sat on the runway until about 48 hours after Waldo’s smoke plume appeared on June 23.
The firefighting unit at Peterson Air Force Base is one of four spread across the nation.
Any change would likely be administrative in nature — meaning a re-interpretation of the law on tanker use, said Mike Saccone, spokesman for Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. The senator has been involved in discussions about tanker use, Saccone said.
The Defense Department’s fleet of tankers were unusually busy in 2012.
The C-130s made 1,011 slurry drops over fires in 10 states last year — using 2.5 million gallons of retardant in the process, according to Ann Skarban, spokeswoman for the 302nd Airlift Wing. The fleet exceeded that gallon total only once — dropping five million gallons in 1994.
The call to make the C-130s more readily available also comes as the U.S. Forest Service aging fleet of tankers dwindles.
The Forest Service had about 20 large civilian air tankers it could call on in 2012, but many of those planes were only available for part of the firefighting season and two crashed in June, said Jennifer Jones, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.
That’s a fraction of the civilian tankers available in 2002, when the Forest Service had 43 large air tankers it could send to fight fires, Jones said.
Congress has yet to pass a 2013 budget, tying up funding for the next generation of air tankers, Jones said.