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EDITORIAL: Feds won't let supertanker sitting in Colorado Springs save our forests

By: The Gazette editorial board
July 18, 2017 Updated: July 18, 2017 at 7:52 am
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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks during a ceremony Thursday, May 5, 2016, at the Colorado Springs, Colo., Airport demonstrating firefighting capabilities of the Boeing 747-400 Global SuperTanker. The Spirit of John Muir plane will be stationed out of the Colorado Springs Airport and will be able to respond to fires around the world. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

As fires race through forests in the West, threatening property and lives, the world's mightiest firefighting air tanker sits idle on a runway at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs.

Like Nero watching Rome burn, federal officials fiddle with a contract and won't let the aircraft fly. The plane offers taxpayers the lowest per-gallon delivery of retardant for any fire requiring two or more planes, with an ability to drop nearly 20,000 gallons of retardant.

U.S. Forest Service officials won't offer Springs-based Global SuperTanker Services a contract allowing more than 5,000 gallons of suppressant. Forest officials won't say why.

A 5,000-gallon limit defeats the purpose of fighting fires with a 747, which can dramatically increase the efficiency and results of aerial attacks.

The whole affair brings up sad memories of the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned for almost three days before federal authorities allowed a group of Air Force C-130 firefighting planes to fly.

Then-Mayor Steve Bach, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn and others expressed dismay when administrative process superseded the urgency of using every tool available to fight for property and lives.

The C-130s were based about 10 miles from Waldo Canyon, at Peterson, and could have battled the fire in its infancy - when airstrikes are more effective.

By the time the paperwork was signed, the inferno was out of control and consuming homes.

With a cruising speed of 600 miles an hour, the Spring-based Spirit of John Muir 747 can reach most wildfire-prone areas of the country in less than two hours. It can drop its entire load and leave a 200-foot wide fire barrier nearly a mile long. Alternatively, ground-based fire commanders can order multiple smaller drops.

The plane has double the capacity of any other tanker in the world. Unlike the others, it can fight fires throughout the night.

We don't know why this tanker is grounded through fire season, but news reports suggest environmental politics may be in the mix.

Outside magazine reported on the Springs-based tanker in 2016. The publication paraphrased Timothy Ingalsbee, co-director of the Association of Fire Ecology, complaining that aerial fire retardants aren't "ecologically friendly," so why drop them from a bigger plane?

Andy Stahl heads the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an activist group of federal workers dedicated to holding their employer accountable for "responsible land stewardship." The Associated Press quoted him opposing the tanker last week, in a story about the grounding of John Muir.

Wildfires don't negotiate. They don't listen to environmentalists or seek permission from bureaucrats.

Wildfires quickly destroy forests, property and lives. The Forest Service is responsible for controlling them and should stop fiddling while our national forests burn.

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