Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Changes after Waldo Canyon fire speed up aerial response to fires

By Jakob Rodgers Published: June 23, 2013

When the Black Forest fire began to rage on June 11, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa expected aerial support from the local C-130 Air Force Reserve wing to be slow to arrive.

"Mentally, I was prepared for that three-day response," Maketa said.

The fact that it took one-third of that time for the C-130s to get airborne is a testament to lessons learned from the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, military and emergency officials said.

Slightly more than 24 hours after the Black Forest fire ignited north of Colorado Springs, two C-130 aircraft with the 302nd Airlift Wing flew over and dropped retardant ahead of the flames.

And Fort Carson's new combat aviation brigade saw its first action during the Black Forest fire, when Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters joined the fight.

The policy tweaks that resulted in this year's quickened response were among a series of improvements for the nation's military and civilian aerial firefighting efforts.

On June 6 the U.S. Forest Service proceeded with plans to nearly double its fleet of large wildfire tankers this summer - a breakthrough in a process long mired in contract squabbles and indecision.

Last year, before the Waldo Canyon fire erupted, the Forest Service planned to field a fleet of seven newer, faster planes - each capable of carrying at least 3,000 gallons of retardant. Those plans, however, were grounded when two businesses protested the award of contracts for the new fleet.

So the Forest Service limped along in 2012 with 11 tankers - two of which crashed - while relying heavily on help from the military as well as planes on loan from an Alaskan/Canadian partnership.

The Air Force firefighting fleet dropped about 2.5 million gallons of retardant on fires in 2012, the second-highest amount in the program's roughly 40-year history.

But the contract squabbles appear to be over. The seven larger tankers came under contract in early June.

One of those planes - a DC-10 tanker capable of dropping up to 11,600 gallons of retardant - flew sorties over the Black Forest fire. The remaining six next-generation planes have until mid-August to complete the myriad certifications required by the Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration before being approved for service.

Once in service, those planes could ease the burden on the military's fleet of C-130s.

Also helpful has been a slow start to the fire season, one far below the 10-year average.

Still, no progress has been announced on easing a policy mandating that civilian aircraft be used before military assets - a policy that came under review this spring, according to Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Northern Command.

Just as with the Waldo Canyon fire, Peterson's 302nd Airlift Wing received orders to deploy over the Black Forest fire less than 12 hours after the fire started.

But in 2012, the planes waited on the Peterson Air Force Base tarmac for as long as 24 hours before taking off.

Though the first plane was ready to fly at noon June 24 - the second day of the fire - the crew's order was to be ready "no earlier than" noon June 25, said Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, the wing's chief of aerial firefighting.

And the National Interagency Fire Center, which orders the units' activation, had yet to arrive in Colorado Springs on June 24, Thompson said.

This year was different.

Military and civilian officials removed the "no earlier than" wording from the June 11 activation order, Thompson said.

And wing officials coordinated with the center via telephone, eliminating the need for support staff to be in town for the C-130's first flight, he added.

"Our only goal is getting there as soon as possible," Thompson said.

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