Senators consider airplane leases not requested by state firefighters

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A Senate Finance subcommittee is considering spending $700,000 on a pair of Canadian firefighting airplanes that state fire managers say they didn't ask for and would not work well in Alaska.

The Division of Forestry, in charge of battling Alaska's wildfires, asked the Legislature for 20 more firefighters and a few new fire engines, officials said this week. But Quebec-based Bombardier Inc., through its Juneau lobbyist, is attempting to persuade the subcommittee in charge of the Department of Natural Resources budget to support leasing two of its CL-215 aircraft.

An aide to Sen. Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, said the subcommittee has not added money to budgets under consideration for the aircraft but authorized Leman to seek the money before the full Finance Committee. Leman plans a hearing on the matter Monday.

State Forester Jeff Jahnke told the Anchorage Daily News that no one in the Senate Finance subcommittee talked to state wildfire experts, who have done extensive studies on aircraft used for fighting fires.

''We have professional experts who are nationally recognized for their expertise who don't believe this is the right aircraft,'' Jahnke said.

The Bombardier lobbyist, former Alaska state forester Tom Boutin, said he has talked to members of the subcommittee frequently about the plane's value, especially in fighting fires that may erupt from the swaths of beetle-killed spruce trees in Southcentral and around Anchorage. The amphibious air tanker would be used for a fast initial attack on a fire, he said.

Leman said lawmakers are concerned about the upcoming fire season.

''The faster we can respond to save homes and lives, the better off we will be,'' Leman said. The Canadian planes, he said, are ''very effective, but they're expensive.''

Leasing the aircraft would cost the state $9,958 a day and $1,298 a flight hour, plus oil and fuel, according to the most recent proposal made by Bombardier to the Division of Forestry.

The air tanker currently used by state firefighters costs $3,000 a day and $1,200 a flight hour, plus oil and fuel, according to the department.

Leman said the subcommittee recommended adding the planes to the department's budget, despite rumblings from forestry officials, because lawmakers believed that the opposition was coming from managers and that ''there was fair amount of support at worker bee level.''

Jahnke said that's not true. He said he just attended a workshop with firefighters from across the state in which they discussed the CL-215. Jahnke said everyone attending had agreed that the agency's other needs should come first.

''We don't see it as a broadly used piece of equipment,'' he said. ''It's a narrowly used piece of equipment. It doesn't compare with the effectiveness of a helicopter, for example, that can transport people and deliver water.''

The state's existing tankers can haul 3,000 gallons of water-foam retardant.

The Canadian plane can skim along a lake and scoop up 1,400 gallons of water in 10 seconds, Boutin said. It can inject a short-term retardant foam into the tank full of water, then dump it onto a fire through two doors in the fuselage.

Pulling water out of a nearby lake can save valuable time when a wildfire is in its early stages, Boutin said.

State fire managers said the craft have significant limitations. They are slow, they don't work well in high winds and they are not good at flying long distances, said Joe Stam, fire program manager with the Division of Forestry.

In addition to Leman, the subcommittee includes Sens. Randy Phillips, R-Eagle River; John Torgerson, R-Kasilof; Drue Pearce, R-Anchorage; and Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart.

Boutin was paid $27,728 in 2000 to lobby for Bombardier, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Boutin said he also works for the company in other parts of the country.

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