A strange thing has been happening in regards to the two Supertankers (a DC-10 and a 747 which have been converted from airliners to air-tankers). Despite the fact that management for both aircraft have been rushing their respective planes through FAA and Air-Tanker Board certification, fire managers have been reluctant to keep them in the order of battle on the Day Fire, one of the largest and longest-burning in California history. The DC-10 conducted an impressive drop on a ridgeline on Sunday, a drop which fire managers credited with stopping the fire dead in its tracks on that front. But after that – nothing. There were no further calls from fire managers for additional drops the rest of the week, even after the fire jumped a CAT line and roared into Lockwood Valley, threatening homes in several isolated communities. The Ten-Tanker (as the DC-10 managers called their plane), simply sat on the tarmac at Victorville without serving as anything more than a backdrop for a local news broadcast by NBC. Ten-Tanker management finally got so exasperated that they put fire officials on notice that if they didn’t get another call to drop by noon Wednesday, they would send their crews home, and some of them, like Oklahoma native pilot Jack Maxey, live a long ways away and couldn’t be recalled quickly. But the fact of the matter is that the Ten-Tanker folks couldn’t keep paying salaries without some commensurate income from the government, so they had to shut their facility down for the day to save money. Nor does the cost stop there. I talked with Bill Ward, who provides Phos-Chek retardant by the truckload to the Ten-Tanker, and he said that they basically wasted an entire load of retardant waiting at Victorville for the Ten-Tanker to be called on by Day Fire managers – a call that never came.
But the DC-10 is not the only Supertanker having problems. Evergreen Aviation, which provides the 747 Supertanker, has also run afoul of the fire bureaucracy. Having met all the qualifications required by the FAA for licensing as an air-tanker, they were told by the US Forest Service that their hard-earned contract was null and void when the NIFC National Preparedness Level dropped below a 5 (the highest threat level). As a result of the index dropping to a 3 yesterday, their contract is also out the window.
The Ten-Tanker folks are trying to get a $5 million annual contract to fight fires, which is the minimum they can afford if they want to outfit follow-on aircraft and pay the operating costs for the current DC-10. This may sound like a lot of money, but consider the cost of homes in Southern California. Also factor in the suppression cost to date of the Day Fire (over $50 million), which has not destroyed many structures at all. There is already a precedent for insurance companies suing the federal government for the actions of federal firefighters (for fires in New Mexico and Colorado that were started by Forest Service personnel). Could the next precedent be that of suing the feds for a lack of initiative in not using the resources that were readily available? Could be. Let me know what you think at email@example.com