CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- President Barack Obama signed a bill this week hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation's rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24 million. The same day, two C-130 military transport planes designed for that very purpose sat on a tarmac in Cheyenne, shrouded in an eye-watering haze from a raging Colorado wildfire just a 15-minute flight away.
In all, eight workhorse C-130s stand ready to fight destructive wildfires around the country -- but all are grounded due to rules governing the use of the nation's aerial firefighting resources. The new purchases, meanwhile, won't help firefighters battling destructive blazes in Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere in the West for weeks, if not months.
"Getting into large, multiple wildfire scenarios, there's just not enough (aircraft) to go around in the current state," said Chuck Bushey, past president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, a professional association of people who fight wildfires.
Obama signed the bill Wednesday at the urging of Colorado's congressional delegation, which was quick to praise the move.
Three planes are scheduled to be ready by mid-August.
The three will bring the Forest Service fleet to 20 large tanker planes -- a figure that includes the lease of eight planes from the state of California, the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre and a private DC-10 based in California. Another 11 tankers, including
"This is a major milestone in our efforts to modernize the large air tanker fleet," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a release about the President's bill signing.
Still, the eight Air National Guard C-130 cargo planes fitted to drop slurry sit in Wyoming, Colorado, California and North Carolina.
The Forest Service says it may request the eight planes only when all private tanker planes already are fighting fires or are unavailable for use.
The C-130 crews insist they're ready to roll on 48 hours' notice.
"We have no limiting factors in terms of personnel or equipment to respond," said Deidre Forster, spokeswoman for the Wyoming National Guard.