Airpower isn’t just for fighting wars. It is also a vital means of combating wildfires. Fleets of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft provide the heavy water power that can turn the tide against major fire. Many wildfires occur in difficult to reach terrain; aerial tankers provide one of the few ways of accessing these. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) maintains a dedicated fleet of aerial water tankers that can fly anywhere in the United States to fight fires. A number of states also have their own fire-fighting aircraft. California alone maintains some 50 helicopters and manned aircraft for fire-fighting purposes under its CAL Fires program. In addition, the Air National Guard maintains a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System which is a removable fire-fighting unit capable of dropping 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant from a C-130 cargo plane.
This year is predicted to be a particularly severe one for wildfires. So the deteriorating state of the USFS should be a matter of some concern to the Obama Administration, Congress and the American people. The USFS badly needs to recapitalize its aerial tanker fleet. From a high of over 40 aircraft a decade ago, the fleet has now fallen to 11 aircraft. The USFS has a plan of sorts to increase its inventory but Congress has appropriated virtually no money. In addition, the Air Force has recommended reducing the number of Air National Guard units which could make it more difficult in the future for that organization to step into the breach. With the Pentagon still buying C-130 transport aircraft, there would not be a problem finding a good aerial tanker.
The military services are in the midst of a major modernization program designed to provide them with the planes, ships and vehicles needed in order to fight and win the nation’s future foreign wars. A small investment of national resources could do as much for this nation’s ability to fight wildfires.
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