Video: Why aren't big planes used to fight fires?

By George Lewis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/1/2006 9:15:53 AM ET 2006-10-01T13:15:53

A huge wildland fire that started on Labor Day is still burning, 25 days later. It's covered more than 250 square miles — an area bigger than the city of Chicago.

Some critics say the federal government is missing an opportunity to use new firefighting tools — supertankers that could have helped them get the upper hand on this blaze a lot quicker.

Last Sunday, a converted DC-10 jetliner made four runs over the burning California hillsides, dousing them with 12,000-gallon loads of fire-retardant — 10 times the amount carried by conventional smaller tankers.

"This airplane is perfectly suited for aerial firefighting on large wildland fires," says Ray Chaney of the California Department of Forestry.

But for the next two days, as huge firestorms threatened the community of Lockwood Valley, the plane was nowhere to be seen."If they had the supertanker in here, that made a couple of passes a few days ago, this fire would be in check and would not be the danger that it is now," says Lockwood Valley resident Cliff Wallace.

The problem is the U.S. Forest Service has not certified the DC-10 as an airtanker. The one day it was used, it was dispatched by the state of California."There's federal lands and state land and there's rules in place on dropping on federal land," Victorville, Calif., Mayor Mike Rothschild says. "And that's a bit frustrating. Fires don't care where they are burning."

This DC-10 isn't the only plane that's sitting idle. There are other big air tankers that are grounded because federal officials won't give them permission to fly.

"It's a combination of arrogance, ignorance and just plain old American bureaucracy," says Tom Robinson, who heads a company called Global Emergency Response. The company is pushing using Russian-made military cargo planes — the Ilyushin 76 — as firefighting tankers.

"Each plane with one drop can put a fire out over 12 football fields in size in less than 12 seconds," he says.

After a series of horrible accidents involving older airtankers, the forest service tightened its rules for certifying planes. But officials say they are about to OK a converted 747 Jumbo Jet and that the DC-10 could also soon win approval.

"It is a new, exciting, potentially valuable tool that we want to continue to evaluate," says Ed Hollingshead of the U.S. Forest Service.

That leaves some people wondering how many more fires it will take to burn through all the red tape.

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