DENVER (CBS4) – Wildfires destroyed some 600 homes and burned more than 100,000 acres in Colorado during the past two months and several homeowners contacted 4 On Your Side Investigator Rick Sallinger to ask where the military was when the fires broke out.
There’s no question the firefighters and military did a heroic job, but questions remain after CBS4 found two C-130 air tankers capable of dropping thousands of gallons at a time were sitting on the ground just a 15-minute flight away while the High Park Fire burned near Fort Collins.
Two other C-130s sat at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs in the early days of the Waldo Canyon Fire, leading many residents to wonder why they weren’t deployed sooner.
Sallinger found that there is a federal law that says government-owned tankers and other resources cannot be used until all private contracted planes have been exhausted.
“The process for bringing in those assets is that we have to exhaust all of the available air assets to the incident,” state emergency management spokeswoman Micki Trost said.
It comes from a law called the 1932 Economy Act, a product of the Great Depression designed to put people to work, preventing competition from the government. Eighty years later it plays a role in firefighting today.
Lynn Mosier viewed what’s left of her home in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs and wondered why the military didn’t get involved sooner.
“It was explained why they didn’t — they have a process, but at the same time the fire has its own process, so I don’t know if the two matched up,” Mosier said.
As the fire festered above her home, helicopters, other tankers and ground personnel fought valiantly, but ultimately in vain trying to contain the Waldo Canyon Fire. It raised serious questions about the old law.
“When you stand in your home town and watch something like this happen, you obviously have an opinion in that discussion, but you have to balance the entire system,” El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathens said.
The C-130s were brought in two days after the fire began, but the very next day a column of smoke collapsed, blowing the fire into the city of Colorado Springs. The area that burned in the city is just matter of miles from Peterson Air Force Base and Fort Carson. Many in the military Sallinger spoke with said they wanted to help but their hands were tied.
Two National Guard Black Hawk helicopters were sent to the High Park Fire early on, but they sat on the ground with civilian aircraft after an incident involving flying too low.
Troy Nelsen was the incident commander at the Waldo Canyon Fire. He said in that blaze more airpower could not have prevented what happened.
“This column grew, collapsed and blew out sideways,” Nelsen said. “I don’t care how much aircraft you have, it wasn’t going to stop that.”
The law requiring private contractors before using government resources has been a hot subject in California and other states, but Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says it did not play a factor in the Colorado fires.
“We don’t stand behind any law in terms of keeping any resources back in deploying those resources to fight the fires,” Salazar said.
But people like Catherine Abate who lost her home question, what if the military had gotten involved sooner and more forcefully?
“It would have been nice had they, but we have so much red tape and so many processes I certainly don’t fault anybody, but you can’t help but just wonder, what if they had?” Abate said.
While acknowledging the law prevents bringing in the C-130s immediately when a fire breaks out, fire commanders point out they aren’t always the best choice in fighting fires in certain terrain.
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