Jumbo firefighter hits turbulence in the US

    Some say it would be a great asset to the US Forest Service. Others say the giant Russian plane doesn't merit serious consideration.

    When it first thundered into the sky in March 1971, the massive llyushin-76 cargo jet gave the Soviet Union the chance to rapidly deploy great numbers of men and munitions against the enemy, namely the United States and its allies.

    Now with the Cold War over, Russia is offering its workhorse IL-76 to the US to fight a growing common threat: forest fires. In the late 1980s, the plane's designers developed a system of huge removable tanks that allow the IL-76 to deluge wild-fires with much more water than any air-craft used anywhere in the world.

    A deal with the US would seem a perfect fit. American authorities spend mil-lions battling wildfires whose frequency

    50 Russia Review / December 1998 and intensity increase every year. The Russians, for their part, could earn badly-needed hard currency through US government contracts and could help the West rather than merely receive its charity. In July, Russia brought up the use of the IL-76 at a meeting between US Vice President Al Gore and then-Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko.

    But so far, the Russian plane remains in Russia, its potential use in the US stymied by controversy. The US Forest Service re-fuses to test the plane, claiming the IL-76 would be ineffective in US wildfire conditions. The agency's ongoing resistance, de-spite its own aging tanker fleet, has frustrated and bewildered the plane's Western supporters, who've urged the US government to act quickly before next summer's fires consume more land. Moreover, as long as the Forest Service fails to approve the plane, many other countries that look to the US for leadership on firefighting is-sues will also forgo the IL-76. "All we ask of the Forest Service is that they test it for a year. What do they have to lose?" says Tom Robinson, a veteran firefighter and the volunteer international liaison for EMERCOM, the Russian emergency situations ministry. "It would be just one more weapon in their arsenal against fires."

    The sheer amount of resources consumed by fire, whether it's land or money, is head-spinning. In 1998, the US Forest Service spent $262 million fighting fires. In Brazil, an area the size of Belgium was destroyed by flames. In Mexico, more than one million acres burned this year. The Russian Far East lost 2.9 million acres to wildfires in 1998. The United Nations said in a recent report that wildlands fires "are rapidly becoming a disaster of regional and global proportions."

    The Russian IL-76 was used with some success in the Far East fires, though the situation was out of control by the time the plane arrived. The Russians would simply like a chance to compete for lucrative US Forest Service aerial firefighting contracts. The Forest Service has few of its oven planes, contracting instead with private companies. This year it has an $11- million budget to hire 35 air tankers, the largest of which can drop up to 3,000 galIons of water or fire retardant.

    The Russian IL-76's startling advantage ; is that it can drop about 11,000 gallons of water or retardant over a length of more than a half-mile in about nine seconds - that's almost three times more capacity than the largest US air tankers. But the agency argues that it doesn't need more. "A 10,000 gallon plane is just too big," insists Pat Kelly, the assistant director of fire and aviation management at the US Forest Service.

    A Forest Service team evaluated the IL-76 in late 1994 by observing it at an air show and talking to its crew. The evaluation determined "that it has so many significant detriments that we've never got-ten to the point of getting a serious technical assessment of the aircraft," Kelly says.

    The size of the plane, Kelly argues, prevents it from diving into canyons or doing downhill drops without risking a crash, and much of America's wildland fires occur in mountainous areas. The Forest Service also claims there aren't enough airports near traditionally fire-prone areas that could handle an aircraft of the llyushin's size.

    The gargantuan I Russian IL-76 is the J largest wildfire I fighter in the world.

    The Russian government has kept a polite diplomatic silence about the forest service's objections, preferring to work behind the scenes to get the Forest Service to review the plane. But the aircraft's Western backers have vociferously lobbied Capital Hill and the White House be-cause of what they see as intransigence at the Forest Service. The Russian government would be paid for the plane's use. The plane's Western supporters include North American companies working with the emergency situations ministry that would get a percentage of any contract that was awarded.

    The IL-76 backers concede that it isn't ideal for all fires, though no aircraft is. But they point out it could have made a sizable difference in the Florida fires this year, where the terrain is flat, or in rolling hills and rain forests. When wildfires first break out, the small craft the Forest Service uses are often enough to do the job. The problem is when fires reach a great scale, or when grass and timber are terribly dry, as they have been with the increasingly hotter summers the world has seen. Then, smaller planes and helicopters can't contain the damage, firefighters say.

    At this time, the Forest Service is in no hurry to reconsider its stance on the IL-76, despite the fact that for the first time, there are independent accounts about the plane's performance in putting out wild-fires. This summer, Croatia and Greece contacted the Russian government to get help fighting wildlands fires. The dry hot summer had turned the Balkans into a tinderbox, and Greece suffered the worst wildfires in a century.

    The Russian IL-76's advantage is that it can drop 11,000 gallons of water - almost three times more than the latest US air tanker.

    IL-76 planes were deployed to the region in August. Spokesmen from both countries concurred that the mammoth plane isn't at its best in steep mountainous areas. "One negative point was the high altitude of the drop - 100 to 150 meters above the fire - because of the hilly terrain, and that led to a decrease in the efficiency," says a spokesman from the Croat Interior Ministry. "It's also more difficult to maneuver the plane because it's so big."

    But despite the plane's drawbacks, both countries were impressed by the vast amount of water it could drop and the wide area covered, especially critical in remote areas where there are no roads and no way for other firefighting equipment to be brought in. "Wherever there was an emergency situation, it went, and wherever it went, it was very effective," says Gen. Demetrios Lavrentakis, the head of the Interior Ministry's Civil Protection arm.

    Call it cronyism?

    The Forest Service's reluctance to take action and its past history of dubious deals involving aerial firefighting have drawn charges of possible cronyism from IL-76 supporters such as Robinson. In 1995, the respected US News show 60 Minutes documented that the agency had arranged the giveaway of $100 million in C-130 cargo planes to about a half-dozen con-tractors to fight fires. Those planes rarely saw firefighting action, the program con-tended. Of the 28 planes involved in the deal, the Forest Service claims that 15 are now on contract to fight fires. "We've been told privately by all sorts of firefighters that there's no way we can break into government contracts because of all the cronyism," Robinson says. The Forest Service adamantly denies such charges.

    But as long as the Forest Service waits, so will other governments. In Canada, for example, the individual provinces are responsible for their own aerial firefighting decisions. British Columbia was plagued by devastating fires this year, but its head of aerial firefighting Dave Langridge argues, as the US Forest Service does, that the IL-76 doesn't even warrant a second look. British Columbia's assessment in part relies on its conversations with the Forest Service, since Langridge himself hasn't seen the plane, and on the fact that it uses the same evaluation procedures for aircraft as the US.

    An aging World War II fleet

    Many US firefighters wish the Forest Service would consider other aircraft than the small planes it contracts out to. Frank Smith, chief of fire management for the New Mexico State Forest Service, says the state oversees 42-million acres of wildlands, much of it prairie. US states tap federal resources for aerial firefighting, though a few, most notably Los Angeles County, CA, have bought their own aircraft. (Incidentally, they bought Canadian planes.)

    According to Smith and many other firefighters, most of the Forest Service's contract fleet is vintage World War II or Korean War aircraft, which makes upkeep expensive since all spare parts have to be specially made. The planes' small size makes them vulnerable to the swirling winds above fires and in canyons. When high winds drive a fire, the small loads the planes drop make no difference, Smith says. Most are turbo prop planes, which means they're slow to get to a fire. "Basically they're old, worn out and they have to be replaced by something," he concludes, after years of using Forest Service craft.

    Santa Barbara County, CA, Fire Battalion Chief Jim Harrison, after hosting a visit by Russian firefighters earlier this year, believes the solution to the acrimonious debate between the Forest Service and the IL-76 supporters is just to try out the plane for a year. "I spent a lot of time talking to the EMERCOM crew about the airplane when they were here," he says. "Even if the plane's half as good as they say it is, I'd have it here this year."

    by Neela Banerjee RR
    RussiaReview / December 1998

    'We've been told privately by all sorts of firefighters that there's no way we can break into the US government contracts because of all the cronyism.'