The military's C-130 tankers were not called to duty until June 25, weeks after large fires began destroying homes and causing deaths across the West. The planes flew multiple missions in Colorado before one crashed fighting the White Draw fire in South Dakota on July 1, killing three members of its crew. The cause of the C-130 crash remains under investigation.
The remaining planes were temporarily grounded but resumed flying Tuesday. Six arrived at the Squirrel Creek Fire in Wyoming on Independence Day, dropping 50,600 gallons of retardant in 15 hours.
But federal law prohibits fire managers from calling in the military planes until they first call private aircraft leased to the government. The law has been the subject of some debate in the aftermath of the recent fires. Fire managers also say inserting the larger, higher-flying military planes into the aerial ballet of the more nimble aircraft flown by more experienced private firefighting pilots complicates the picture.
Beth Lund, leader of the national-level Type 1 Incident Management Team that managed the 87,284-acre High Park Fire northwest of Fort Collins says that, contrary to popular belief, the bigger planes aren't necessarily better.
"Fires don't get put out by red stuff coming out of the air," she said. "It's boots on the ground."
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., called the U.S. Forest Service "negligent" for not deploying the tankers sooner. He said there's no doubt homes would have been saved if the military tankers had been called earlier. He said firefighters have told him that one large tanker could easily stop or significantly slow a fire when it's only a few acres but that cost and deployment time make them a last line of defense.
"The people on the ground are crying for help," Gallegly said. "I think they have a better sense of what they need than someone sitting at a desk."
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