One Third of Depleted Fleet Grounded Last Year
The Obama administration is now scrambling to get the U.S. Forest Service the air support it needs to battle an explosive early start to the 2012 wildfire season. But there may be a secondary, butt-covering motive behind the hustle to get more planes in the air.
Less than a year ago, the same administration seemed to be doing its best to leave the Forest Service ill-equipped to deal with the mounting wildfire threat, by summarily cancelling a contract with a company that furnished roughly one third of the wildfire-fighting tankers in the agency’s already-depleted fleet. That action might loom large as calls mounts for an investigation into why the agency’s air assets seem inadequate to meet the threat.
Just about the only thing that shakes the slumbering federal bureaucracy awake is a catastrophe, which usually means the response comes too late. And so it is with the uncharacteristically swift but also belated steps the President and Congress are taking to shore-up a dated, downsized and deficient U.S. Forest Service air tanker fleet. There’s something about having your hair catch fire that grabs your attention. It’s just a shame that that’s what it takes to get decisive federal action on this long-festering problem.
Fast action now is welcome, even if it comes too late to protect tens of thousands of acres that might otherwise have been saved. But it may take a congressional inquiry, not just another dry GAO report, to get to the truth about why the Forest Service was so dangerously short of tankers this year. That’s because the Obama administration left the Forest Service seven planes short of what it might have had in the air this year, when it abruptly cancelled a contract with one airplane provider, Aero Union, in August 2011 — summarily reducing the size of the fleet by about one third. Not long after the contract was dropped, based on vague safety allegations the contractor disputed, the company closed its doors.
Grounding the planes raised protests (and some alarm) at the time, including from Texas Governor Rick Perry and California Rep. Dan Lungren, whose states were both ravaged by wildfires last year. But the issue quickly faded from the headlines soon after.
That fateful decision may loom large for the White House, as questions are asked about why the Forest Service was so short of planes this year, even though wildfires have been recognized as a clear and present danger for more than a decade.
Here’s how Human Events’ Audrey Hudson reported the story last September:
Contract Dispute Grounds Firefighting Planes
By: Audrey Hudson
9/7/2011 03:01 AM
Nearly half of the federal government’s firefighting air tankers are siting idle at a California airport, grounded by the Obama administration in a contract dispute just weeks before wildfires swept through Texas killing a mother and her child, and destroying 100,000 acres.
The massive blazes forced Texas Gov. and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry to abruptly call off a campaign appearance in South Carolina earlier this week to respond to the crisis, and may force him to cancel his first debate appearance Wednesday night.
The U.S. Forest Service terminated the contract with Aero Union five weeks ago to operate seven P-3 Orions that are critical to the agency’s firefighting mission, leaving the federal government with 11 tankers under contract to help battle more than 50 large uncontained wildfires now burning nationwide.
That’s down from 40 tankers used by the Forest Service just a decade ago, according to Rep. Dan Lungren (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Administration, who is challenging the decision to dismiss the largest provider of heavy air-tanker support to the federal government.
“We were certified to fly all season, but they just terminated us and threw 60 people out of work and left the country vulnerable to fires, as you can see right now in Texas,” said Britt Gourley, CEO for Aero Union.
“This is our 50th anniversary fighting fires for the Forest Service. It’s not quite the way we wanted to celebrate it,” Gourley said.
Gourley said the government did not provide details on why the contract was canceled, but that they did not agree with Aero Union’s 15-year maintenance plan.
“We wanted to sit down with them and ask why it was canceled and find a quick resolution, but they didn’t want to talk about it. They just said, ‘We don’t want the airplanes, have a nice life,’ ” Gourley said. “I had to let go of my staff–60 people and their families were devastated,” Gourley said. “It’s really been tragic.”
The Forest Service says it will not use aircraft that does not meet its requirements, and in this case that included the long-term airworthiness inspection program, although the company passed its annual inspection.
“Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices,” said Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Services fire and aviation management program.
“This contract termination notwithstanding, we possess the aircraft support needed for this year’s fire season,” Harbour said.
In a letter to the administration questioning the canceled contracts that was obtained by HUMAN EVENTS, Lungren said the aircraft “are some of the best available for fighting fires in the United States.”
“The [Federal Aviation Administration] representative stated that the disrupted contract issues which led to the grounding of Aero Union’s entire fleet do not relate to the suitability of these aircraft to perform for the remainder of this fire season,” Lungren said in the Aug. 15 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees the Forest Service.
“I am deeply troubled by the Forest Service’s sudden action, particularly as California enters into the fire season. Our aerial firefighting fleet is already seriously undercapitalized,” Lungren said.
In addition to the 11 tankers in the fleet still operating, two air tankers are under contract to operate on-call, and up to eight military firefighting aircraft can be called to assist if needed.
Aero Union operated six Lockheed P-3 Orions, and was preparing to add a seventh to the fleet when the contract was canceled. The four-engine turboprops were originally used as anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft that were built for the U.S. Navy.
Ultimately, those aircraft will be replaced with two-engine CV 580s from Canada, which Lungren said is “worrisome” because those aircraft will carry a smaller load of fuel-retardant and require semenax vs more downtime.
Despite the contract cancellation, Gourley told HUMAN EVENTS he has reached out to his former employees and that they could have four planes up in 48 hours to fly to Texas’ rescue, and assist in other devastating fires burning in California.
“First and foremost, we are firefighters at Aero Union, and we do not want to sit idle while the people of Texas and California suffer,” Gourley said in a letter Tuesday to Harbour.
“We feel strongly that a contract disagreement unrelated to the safety of our fleet to fight fires should not stand in the way of our mission at a time when these aircraft are most needed. The tragic scenes in Texas and California make any contract issues appear very secondary,” Gourley said.
Perry toured the devastation near Austin on Tuesday and viewed some of the homes destroyed by the flames.
“These fires are serious and widespread, and as mean as I have ever seen, burning more than 1,000 homes since this wildfire season began,” Perry said.
“Texas appreciates the resources and support we continue to receive from across the state and across the country to fight these fires, and the efforts of the brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect Texans’ lives and property. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are impacted by these fires,” Perry said.
Eight years ago the Forest Service reportedly had 44 tankers in its contract fleet. By last August, when the Aero Union contract was cancelled, it has just 11 planes available – even though the wildfire threat has not been diminishing, but growing. This recent agency press release says it has 9 planes available. Some in Congress, like Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, have been watching with alarm as the agency’s firefighting capacity has been reduced to a recklessly thin margin. In February 2012, after the usual belabored process, the Forest Service finally produced a plan for air fleet modernization. But it was of course still in “the process” when the West began blowing up this Spring.
Whether Aero Union’s aircraft were actually unsafe, or just out of compliance with federal paperwork requirements, is disputed in media reports. Then-Aero Union CEO Britt Gourley called the allegations “misinformation” that was being used by the government to justify a breach of contract. He vowed to appeal the decision, a process that could reportedly have taken three years, but the company, mortally wounded by the cancellation, had to layoff 60 workers only a few months later and auctioned its planes early this year. Efforts to reach Gourley or any other representatives of Aero Union for comment and an update were unsuccessful.
The company’s surplus military P-3 Orions certainly are aging, but so are most of the aircraft used for such duties. Originally designed to hunt submarines in the Cold War, and thus built to last, P-3s may not be fresh off an assembly line but they are still in service in many parts of the world, including by some NATO countries. Company executives said at the time of cancellation that they wanted to work with the service to resolve any issues, but that the agency snubbed such overtures. “We wanted to sit down with them and ask why it was canceled and find a quick resolution, but they didn’t want to talk about it,” Gourley told Human Events. ”They just said, ‘We don’t want the airplanes, have a nice life.’”
It’s an oddly inflexible attitude for an agency with dwindling firefighting assets and a growing forest management problem on its hands. In press releases and news reports at the time, the service expressed confidence that it could handle any contingency without the additional planes. That looks like foolish bravado in light of unfolding circumstances. The ex post facto scramble to add planes in the midst of a wildfire season, as well as the need to get the military involved, seems like ample evidence that the Forest Service wasn’t equipped to handle all contingencies, contrary to statements made when the contract was cancelled.
The Obama administration is scrambling now to help ensure the Forest Service has the air assets it needs to fight the ongoing inferno. But the crisis is bound to raise questions not just about whether the cancelled contract created additional weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but about what the administration has been doing over the past three summers to shore-up the service’s air fleet. Questions also might be asked about why the administration has done nothing since the contract was cancelled, almost a year ago, to fill the gap in capabilities that was created. Why wasn’t it doing ten or eleven months ago what it finally got around to doing last week, only after the situation was getting out of hand?
Would an additional seven planes – increasing present capacity by a third! – have saved all the forests we’re now seeing incinerated? Perhaps not. But few would argue that they wouldn’t have made a critical difference at this critical time. And it seems like the Obama White House may be feeling a lot more heat over this as more questions are asked. Wyden and others in Congress are asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate how the agency put itself in this precarious position. But a Congressional inquiry might also be warranted.
While some might think it unfair to place responsibility for the dangerous decay of U.S. forest fighting capabilities on one administration, since this has been an incremental process, spanning many years, this administration can’t evade blame for the accelerating pace of decline that occurred on Barack Obama’s watch. Nor can this President duck responsibility for failing to recognize, and respond to, the air assets shortfall the cancelled contract helped exacerbate. This administration has had more than three years to reverse the decline, and one year since the cancelled contract to bolster an obviously-inadequate force, yet it did nothing until mid-summer of an election year, when neglect and indifference blew-up in its face. Earlier administrations and a lethargic and bumbling Forest Service bureaucracy no doubt share blame for this scandalous state of affairs. But there’s also no denying that the breaking point came when this President was “in charge.”
Nice to see the White House and Forest Service hustling now to add new planes. But maybe some of that urgency stems from the responsibility they share for leaving the U.S. ill-prepared and short-handed, in an election year when the West caught fire.
(Correction: Aero Union is not out of business, as this story reported, based on the best information we had at the time of publication, and its grounded aircraft were not sold off, because it didn’t receive what it considered a fair offer. The company continues to fight the contract cancellation but prefers not to comment while the process goes forward.)