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California firefighting agency gives up its Very Large Air Tanker

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Judith Lewis Mernit | Jul 13, 2011 06:00 AM

When the news broke last week that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection canceled its contract with the company that supplies its biggest chemical-dropping jet – literally, the Very Large Air Tanker -- I was reminded of an argument Andy Stahl, Executive Director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) had made against the both the air tankers and retardant chemicals themselves: There’s no evidence that they work. (See my HCN story, “Fire Fight” for the in-depth analysis.) The U.S. Forest Service, in its recent study of the retardant chemicals’ environmental impacts, had not proved their efficacy; even the manufacturer of the leading retardant, Phos-Chek, offers no hard data proving the chemical has saved property or lives.

Air tankerAs a consequence, Stahl claims, state firefighting agencies with forested lands, such as Texas and New Jersey, don’t spend much money on retardants. In fact, half of all the retardant used in the U.S. – around $36 million worth annually – gets dropped on California; east of the Mississippi it’s hardly used at all. The reason for this, Stahl says, is that the West contains far more federal land, and it’s only the U.S. Forest Service that can afford to sink funds into a strategy of dubious merit.

 “When you can’t print money,” Stahl says, “you can’t fight expensive wars. You only do what’s effective. You don’t get caught up in hugely expensive infrastructure.”

 The break with 10 Tanker Air Carrier, two years into a three-year contract, appears to play into Stahl’s point: For shrinking state firefighting agencies with narrowly focused fire-suppression missions, large retardant-chemical drops matter less than a nimble force on the ground.

Cal Fire, as the agency is more commonly known, stops fires on private land: ranches, conservancy property, and private homes in the urban-wildland interface. That’s roughly a third of California’s 93 million acres of combustible wildlands, and while it’s all privately held, the land “has a huge public trust value,” says Deputy Director Janet Upton. “The majority of the state’s watershed falls within it.” Cal Fire aims to let no fire grow past 10 acres, which means what Upton calls the “initial attack resource” is key. And there’s not much of a place in that initial attack for a DC-10 aircraft and its 50 tons of retardant. There is a place for engines and boots on the ground.

The early contract termination will save Cal Fire roughly $12.5 million, a small but meaningful contribution toward resolving California’s seemingly intractable deficit. “To achieve better savings we’d have to decimate another program,” Upton says. “And those other services would cut into our core mission.”

 Cal Fire did give up manpower, too, reducing its engine crews from four firefighters per engine to three, which will save the state $30.7 million next year. But that just just represents a return to historic staffing levels, which were bumped up during the wicked 2003 fire season and never dropped back down. Governor Jerry Brown, as intent as he seems on teaching the state’s residents a lesson about public services, has spared Cal Fire any further sacrifice. “He has protected all of our 336 engines and our 228 stations from closure,” Upton says.

Upton insists that dropping the air tanker contract “has nothing to do with issues about retardant,” including objections from Stahl and other environmentalists about the chemicals’ tendency to fertilize invasive grasses and kill fish. (They also pollute that precious watershed Cal Fire is tasked with protecting.) The agency still has a number of smaller strategic aircraft that can slot into canyons and maneuver above rough terrain, making targeted retardant drops when an incident commander deems them necessary. “But aircraft by themselves don’t put out fires,” Upton says. “They’re only important as a follow-up to the boots on the ground. We wouldn’t do anything to erode the effectiveness of those resources.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a  contributing editor at High Country News.

Image of air tanker dropping retardant courtesy Flickr user bugeater.

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