It is, perhaps, ironic that the worst forest and wasteland fire season in half a century has facilitated no invitation from the United States Forest Service to the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (specifically EMERCOM) to assist in the extinguishing of fires across 12 western states, where a total of one million acres are currently alight.
The irony lies behind the USFS continued refusal to consider the ILyushin 76TD waterbomber for service in United States. EMERCOM (the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations) through its International Liaison, Tom Robinson, and through an organisation named Global Emergency Response, of which Robinson is Chief Administrator, have repeatedly over six years, offered the use of the Il-76 to assist in fire disasters. The USFS repeatedly favoured its own contractors, hiding behind the lack of incorporation by USFS system for the use of the Il-76 on US soil.
With USFS resources now stretched far too thinly, calls are going out to Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand for assistance. United States armed forces personnel have already hastily been trained up and drafted in. Many fires are completely unattended. The reality now stands that the USFS is in desperate need for the capabilities of the Il-76, the USFS knows this and would finally like to be able to draw upon this aircraft. Facilities are not available. USFS is finally admitting that it has not geared up for facilitating aircraft any larger than the contracted tankers currently in service.
Various reasons contribute to the current situation in US. The USFS would rightly claim that problems have arisen as a result of the success of its organisation in previous years. Undergrowths have established and tree densities have become far beyond healthy perimeters, creating a build up of combustible fuels. The western and southern US states are suffering drought conditions in a hot and dry summer following a dry winter. This previous years success has caused the organisation to be ill prepared for scenarios faced today. Expert predictions of an impending disaster have become reality.
The USFS is currently under investigation by the Office of Special Investigations at the Government Accounting Office, under the direction of Senior Investigator Tom Wiley. The central allegation is one of protectionism. The problem for the Il-76 lies behind the necessity for the Air Tanker Board to grant approval for the aircraft in normal contractual service. Certainly any approval would require considerable retrofit of the aircraft for use on US soil.
The Air Tanker Board is made up of tanker owners for the US privately owned fleet of air tankers who set the rules for admission. Understandably, GER figured that with an Air Tanker Board possible conflict of interest and without an opportunity to prove the aircraft, any application would probably be rejected. Indeed, USFS own Ed Stone is on record as publicly stating, We dont care how good the Il-76 is, we have no intention of using it. Further allegations include the misappropriation of $100 million worth of C-130 Hercules. The aircraft, originally owned by United States Air Force, transferred into the hands of the USFS, allegedly, subsequently turned up in the hands of USFS contractor organisations as revealed by a CBS TV production of 60 minutes in 1995.
During the Los Alamos fire in May 2000, Kay Goss, Assistant Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency reportedly approached EMERCOM to have two Il-76 waterbombers standby for use in the disaster. At a point where the aircraft were on the runway awaiting take-off instructions, 24 hours after receiving the original request, a telegram was received by EMERCOM asking them to stand down the aircraft, stating that the fire was under control. The date of this telegram was 13 May 2000.CNN reported on 15 May, quoting a USFS official, that it would be at least another two weeks before the fire was under control. FEMA have since denied that any request was made and even claimed that it was an Internet hoax. A total of 47,000 acres were destroyed in this fire, including 200 homes and with fire damage to a further 400 homes and the National Laboratory. The compensation bill for this disaster alone is $661 million and still counting, but additional costs may not be allowed for in this figure.
Global Emergency Response
In normal circumstances, forest fire fighting is a commercial operation in US and certainly Russia would like a slice of this lucrative cake. Estimates vary between $11-15 million per day in the current crisis. In the event of the Il-76 being granted approval as a contractor to the USFS, Global Emergency Response will handle the work.GER, a commercial alliance, is a unique partnership between Air Routing International Corporation, Houston, Texas, USA; Total Corporate Aviation Services Ltd, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; EMERCOM; and ILyushin Joint Stock Company Ltd, Moscow, Russia.
Tom Robinson is the Chief Administrator for GER.Robinson has considerable experience in fire fighting and tutors in the subject as Director of Education, Virginia Fire and Police Museum, Richmond, Virginia, whilst being a member of various committees from the International Association of Fire Instructors to the International Association of Arson Investigators and the Congressional Fire Service Committee.Indeed his resume would suggest he is presidential candidate material.For the six years this man has lobbied US government bodies, he has had no recompense other than the realisation that when this plane is put into service fewer fire-fighting casualties will result.
Due to the lack of incorporation into the USFS system and any good faith measures to ensure the same for the Il-76 in US, GER would be sitting this one out.The US Government would need to invite the EMERCOM team to participate here on a government-to-government basis.As a NATO member state, the US is able to draw upon the capabilities of EMERCOM under the NATO Partnership for Peace programme.Alistair Merrill, Acting Director of the NATO Secretary Generals Private Office, states in regard of EMERCOM that NATO will continue to facilitate any bilateral initiatives by nations.Robinson is aware of this and is seeking an invitation from the Department of Defence.With three nuclear defence installations already besieged by fire this year, understandably, the DoD is showing some interest.The EMERCOM team would receive no payment for this work, other than reimbursement of fuel costs and accommodation for the team whilst on US soil. The fuel costs remain a problem for the DoD, funding is not available and can only be made available through screening committees, for which clearly there is no time. Robinson is seeking specific apportionment of part of the $150 million announced by President Bill Clinton in Boise, Idaho on Tuesday.
In 1994, by Presidential Decree, President Boris Yeltsin directed this Russian Ministry should be created and appointed Sergei Kozhugetovich Shoigu as Minister. Shoigu was a particularly creative choice by Yeltsin, being one of the few Russian politicians untainted by scandal, and being of Tuvan ethnic background, a relation to the North American aboriginals. In the first half of 1994, Russian disasters had shown a near one-third increase over the same period of the previous year. 20,000 people were affected with close to 1200 fatalities, and significantly, included six nuclear plant emergencies. Minister Shoigu could not be described as a showman but more the powerful politician working away in the background, promoting the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters to be one of the top five Russian Ministries. EMERCOM have won the affection of the Russian nation with the work performed following the Russian bomb-blasts that were attributed to Chechen rebels.
The EMERCOM team entered the international arena of disaster response with teams responding to humanitarian needs in Bosnia, the January 1999 Colombian earthquake and the August 1999 Istanbul earthquake. The teams may not have had the crisp uniforms or even the sophisticated equipment of other international response teams but proved as professional and capable as any. As a result of the Turkish earthquake, an oil refinery at Izmit burned for a week with German fire fighters struggling to bring the blaze under control. The Turkish Minister of the Interior stepped in and invited EMERCOM to send two Il-76 to attend the fire. The blaze was extinguished by the two waterbombers in less than one hour. Greece, too, has had the opportunity to marvel at the abilities of this remarkable aircraft with Il-76s attending forest fires in the particularly severe fire season of 1998.
The ILyushin 76TD waterbomber, a turbo-fan jet, is by far the largest waterbomber in the world; strangely it is also one of the most modern with a capacity of 11,000 gallons of water or fire retard liquids. It has a range of 5000 kilometres and a cruising speed of 430 knots. Due to the stability in all terrain of the aircraft, it is able to low fly at 40-60 metres above ground at 280kph, despatching the 11,000 gallons capacity over an area of 1.2 kilometres by 80 metres. Simply, this aircraft is 60% faster and boasts a capacity of at least 3 times that of any other aircraft in USFS service. Perhaps the only waterbomber that can come close to competing capacity wise is the Canadian, Martin-Mars with 7200 gallons capacity, but with only two remaining of this 1940s built aircraft, even this can be discounted. One of the two Martin-Mars is already on location in the US under invitation from California Department of Forestry.
Internationally, the US is accepted as being a leader. Correspondingly the USFS has been in a position, it might appear, through its lead in not taking up the use of the Il-76, of causing others to suspect that the aircraft was unsuitable. Canada, Mexico, Indonesia and Australia have all turned down this aircraft in the past. As a result, for EMERCOM, this opportunity would be the jewel in the crown, the opportunity to unlock usage on a truly international stage. With, funding opportunities through the World Bank, the 1998 establishment of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (proposed by Russia) and international programmes that seek to respond to disasters globally, EMERCOM is close to establishing itself as the leading force in environmental emergency response. Two ILyushin 76TD waterbombers are standing by on a runway in Moscow awaiting the call.
Stuart B Dobson
11 August 2000