CENTENNIAL – It costs federal taxpayers $34,000 just to keep the U.S. Forest Service’s newest heavy air tanker on the tarmac.
But no one can prove the C-130 tanker, or any other aircraft, actually help fight wildfires, the plane’s owners say.
“One thing we do see is a lot of air tankers are up for political reasons,” said Britt Coulson, aviation manager of Coulson Group, a company that won a contract to provide the Forest Service with the C-130 Next Generation air tanker.
Wayne Coulson, the company’s CEO, acknowledged that some firefighters call the drops of colorful red fire retardant “CNN drops,” because they are the most visual way to show national cable news viewers that fires are being fought.
But no one can prove to what degree they actually work, he said.
“If you asked today, could I get a report on the effectiveness of air tankers? You would find no documentation on the effectiveness of air tankers,” Wayne Coulson said.
Coulson Group’s air tanker has proved popular, but the company is also trying to find customers for another product, a one-of-a-kind command-and-control helicopter that company executives say can offer hard data on when air drops work and when they don’t.
The custom-modified Sikorsky S-76B is the fastest commercial helicopter in the world, Britt Coulson said. With a heat-seeking camera mounted on the nose, it can provide real-time information on fire behavior, day or night. The helicopter flew under contract for the U.S. Forest Service in 2009, but since then, it has done most of its missions in Australia and Mexico.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, wants the Colorado state government to lease the copter for the 2014 fire season.
Wayne Coulson said his helicopter could help the state make sure its air drops are doing more than providing images for the nightly news.
“Entertaining that accountability is so out there from the norm that we see in the world of wildfire,” Wayne Coulson said. “Hats off to the state of Colorado for at least considering that.”