Thursday, September 8, 2011

As Texas Burns, Contract Dispute Grounds Firefighting Aircraft in California

A contract dispute with a California aviation company is keeping close to half the US Government's firefighting aircraft idle on the tarmac thousands of miles from fast-moving wildfires in Texas that have killed at least two people, scored more than 100,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1400 homes in the Lone Star state.

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.
The California-based comany has been in dire financial straights since the cancellation of the US Forest Service contract, missing their first lease payment on their space at the Chico, CA airport and had to lay off 60 employees.

In April 2011, the US State Department requested the use of two specially equipped C-130 cargo planes from the US Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing in Peterson AFB, Colorado to combat wildfires in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. Contrast that with taking nearly two months for any kind of federal disaster declaration from the Obama Administration when those same fires jumped the border and burned thousands and thousands of acres in west Texas.

Firefighters had made inroads Wednesday against the most destructive of the nearly two dozen wildfires that have scorched the Lone Star state since Labor Day weekend. The Bartsop county complex fire, just east of the state capital of Austin, has scorched at least 34,000 acres and nearly 500 homes and is thought to have killed two people as of Thursday.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his presidential bid last month, cut short campaigning in South Carolina and help a new conference in Barstop on Monday after being briefed by public safety officials (although he did attend Wednesday night's televised GOP debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA).

Other wildfires in Texas include a 7000 acre fire southeast of spicewood and a 150 acre fire in Travis County that's burned 25 homes.

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