June 16, 2013 Updated: June 16, 2013 at 8:10 am
Sheriff Terry Maketa and others directing the human effort to control the Black Forest fire made perfectly clear Thursday of their appreciation of the quick and substantial air support from pilots who dropped thousands of gallons of water and slurry on the fire.
The aerial response was a stark contrast to the slow response last summer. As the Waldo Canyon fire raged out of control, two of the country's eight C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) sat on the ground for more than two days. They were moments from the raging fire, yet bureaucrats wasted days before getting them in the air to help men and women who were risking their lives on the ground.
When the Black Forest fire erupted on Tuesday, aircraft began attacking that afternoon. Joining the attack was a DC-10 that dropped four times the slurry in each mission than any other aircraft can carry.
Armchair experts are full of bluster when it comes to aerial assaults on fires. They argue that aircraft have little effect at controlling fires. They tie themselves in knots defending bureaucratic inefficiencies, even going so far as to argue that seconds, hours - even days - don't really matter much when it comes to deploying firefighting. They say large aircraft cannot maneuver well over mountainous terrain.
"All nonsense," says Rick Hatton.
A former Marine fighter pilot who flew F-4s during Vietnam, Hatton is president and CEO of 10 Tanker Aerial Firefighting - the company, based in Victorville, Calif., that owns and operates the DC-10 that flew missions over the Black Canyon fire. His planes are the world's largest operational firefighting machines.
Hatton's company owns two DC-10s and works under a new contract with the U.S. Forest Service. He insists the planes are so effective that one completely extinguished the 177 fire last summer near Phoenix.
"Normally, they don't call us until the fire is huge," Hatton said. "We were deployed to that fire before it had a chance to get out of control and we were able to paint brush it. We passed over it five times, and the commander on the ground told us it was out."
Hatton reminds us that all big fires begin as small fires. When a pilot drops 12,000 gallons of retardant on a small fire, the benefit is enormous. This should be self-evident. The larger the fire gets, the less benefit we see from any attack by air or ground.
If the air attack on Black Forest was useful, it is largely because we were lucky. The DC-10 was in New Mexico, meaning it was less than an hour away.
A DC-10 attack on last summer's Waldo Canyon fire could have substantially slowed growth of the fire while it was small.
"If we had been stationed at Peterson Air Force Base we could have been dropping on that fire almost before we got the landing gear up," Hatton said. That would have had obvious positive effects.
Politicians are talking about the need for a Colorado aerial firefighting fleet. It's a no-brainer. When all the numbers are in, the Black Forest fire may cost our community up to a billion dollars or more. We cannot put a price on the two lives that were lost. Just the more than 400 homes that were destroyed, discounting all other expenses, represent costs of hundreds of millions incurred over the three days.
Hatton says his company could acquire, maintain, staff and station a firefighting DC-10 at Peterson for a retainer of about $6 million a year. Deployment of the aircraft, to fight a fire, costs about $22,000 an hour.
Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans live among the trees. No amount of suppression and mitigation will change the fact forests eventually burn. It's never a matter of if; only of when.
We can, and must, become better prepared to immediately defend properties and lives by air and land with the finest equipment available. The proper response to a wild fire is swift overkill. Put everyone and everything on it immediately. Seconds count, obviously.
The Gazette urges Mayor Steve Bach, Gov. John Hickenlooper, state legislators, county commissioners, City Council members, Sheriff Terry Maketa, fire chiefs, insurance executives and others to get serious about establishing and funding an aerial firefighting unit, based in Colorado Springs, that authorities could deploy the moment a wildfire begins.
Let's get on top (literally) of wildfires. Given the deadly nature and costs of these disasters, we are penny wise and pound foolish to spare the expense of a Colorado aerial Fire Department.