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Jumbo air tanker wins protest, may fight more US wildfires

BOISE — A giant passenger jet converted to fight wildfires was grounded this year by U.S. officials during much of what turned out to be an especially destructive U.S. fire season, but it could be flying much more next year.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office on Thursday sided with Global SuperTanker Services in its battle with the U.S. Forest Service. The Colorado Springs, Colorado-based company challenged the agency’s 5,000-gallon limit on air tankers, which kept the 19,000-gallon plane idle until late August.

After that, the Boeing 747-400 flew only in California in a deal with the state.

Ahead of wildfire season, the Forest Service offered firefighting contracts that limited the size of air tankers, saying a plane as big as the 747 isn’t suited for initial attacks on wildfires. That’s a key Forest Service strategy — putting out blazes before they get big.

The accountability office rejected that, saying “the majority of the agency’s arguments are based upon anecdotal evidence and not supported by the record.”

Officials recommended that the Forest Service revise its size limits for air tankers and reimburse the company for costs involved in challenging the agency.

“We’re very pleased with the decision,” Global SuperTanker CEO Jim Wheeler said. “We look forward to working with the Forest Service going forward.”

The company has long argued that the aircraft can fly low over rough terrain, make multiple drops on one flight and reach wildfires in the U.S. West in less than three hours.

The Forest Service said it’s complying with the decision.

“We are reviewing our documentation,” Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman said in a statement. “After the review is completed, the agency will determine the most appropriate ways to continue to procure large and very large next generation airtankers.”

U.S. officials considered the 747’s firefighting abilities over the summer as the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise raised the threat from wildfires nationwide to its highest level. Regions in the U.S. had started competing for limited resources.

The center says that through Monday, about 14,000 square miles have been scorched this year, a 43 percent increase over the 10-year average.

The 747 got approval by late August to fly in California, where it helped battle wildfires in the northern part of the state that killed 43 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and other buildings.

The aircraft, called the Spirit of John Muir after the famed naturalist, is at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, but will soon head to Marana, Arizona, for maintenance and preparations for firefighting duties in South America and Australia if needed, the company CEO said.

“I fully expect that the fire season is going to be pretty vicious in the Southern Hemisphere, like it was in California this year,” Wheeler said.

Hiroshi Ando/Associated Press  

This May 5, 2016, photo provided by Global Supertanker Services shows a Boeing 747 making a demonstration water drop at Colorado Springs Airport in Colorado Springs, Colo.

House approves bill to expand hydropower

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House has approved a bill aimed at expanding hydroelectric power, an action supporters said would boost a clean source of renewable energy but opponents denounced as a giveaway to large power companies.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, would define hydropower as a renewable energy source and streamline the way projects are licensed, with primary authority granted to a single federal agency. Lawmakers approved the bill Wednesday, 257-166.

Power from rivers and streams makes up nearly 70 percent of electricity generated in Washington state and accounts for more than 50 percent of power in Oregon and Idaho and 36 percent in Montana. But hydropower only accounts for 7 percent of electricity nationwide.

McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-highest ranking Republican, said that figure could be doubled without constructing a single dam. While it takes an average of 18 months to license a new natural gas plant, it can take up to 10 years or longer to license a new dam or relicense an existing dam, she and other Republicans said.

Only 3 percent of the nation’s 80,000 dams now produce electricity. Electrifying some of the larger sites—primarily locks and dams on the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas Rivers that are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers—would generate electricity for millions of homes and create thousands of jobs, an Energy Department report said.

The bill would make the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the lead agency on hydropower licensing and require states, tribes and other federal agencies to defer to the commission.

The GOP bill would lower electricity costs and help the nation follow the Northwest in providing “reliable, clean and affordable energy for generations to come,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Opponents said the bill turns over public waterways to industry at the expense of fishermen, boaters and Native American tribes.

“This bill is an industry wish list and it’s facing major opposition by states, tribes, conservation and recreation groups,” said Amy Kober, a spokeswoman for American Rivers, an environmental group. The legislation weakens protections for clean water and wildlife and strips states and tribes of their authority to ensure crucial environmental safeguards, Kober said.

“We’ve made progress when it comes to balancing hydro production and river health, but this bill would take us backward, giving big energy companies all the power at the expense of local communities,” she said.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said a major cause for licensing delays was due to incomplete applications submitted by power companies rather than bureaucratic bungling, as Republicans charge.

“We cannot allow hydropower facilities to claim a monopoly over our public waterways without mitigating the negative impacts of these facilities ... and without complying with modern environmental laws,” Rush said.

But LeRoy Coleman, a spokesman for the National Hydropower Association, said the bill “would not have the unintended effect of rolling back environmental protections.” He noted it preserves the current environmental regulatory authorities of state and federal agencies.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Montana man wanted for illegal gun dealing caught in Mexico

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A law enforcement official says a Montana man who spent almost two years as a fugitive after being indicted for illegal gun deals has been captured in Mexico and returned to the United States to face charges.

Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Rod Ostermiller said 37-year-old Eric Daniel Doyle of Kalispell was arraigned in federal court in Arizona on Thursday, following his capture a day earlier in the Mexican state of Sonora.

Ostermiller says Doyle was indicted by a federal grand jury in November 2015.

He’s accused of illegally exporting firearms, unlawful transfer of firearms to an out-of-state resident, dealing in firearms without a license and additional weapons charges.

It was unknown if the suspect has hired an attorney. Further details in the case were not immediately available.

At a glance

Coeur d’Alene casino CEO facing misdemeanor battery charge

POST FALLS (AP) — Northern Idaho authorities say the CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel has been arrested following an attack on his brother, the former Coeur d’Alene tribal police chief.

The Spokesman-Review reports that Francis SiJohn was taken into custody at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday near Post Falls on suspicion of misdemeanor battery.

Post Falls police say the arrest followed an argument in Spokane, Washington, where Francis SiJohn and his brother, Cody SiJohn, were having drinks.

Police say that 40-year-old Cody SiJohn returned to Post Falls and a short time later 50-year-old Francis SiJohn and a boy beat Cody SiJohn outside his home.

Francis SiJohn was arrested a short time later and bonded out of the Kootenai County Jail.

He didn’t return a call from The Associated Press left at his workplace on Thursday.

Moose poaching prompts investigation by Idaho authorities

COEUR D’ALENE (AP) — The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is investigating the illegal hunting of two moose in the northwestern part of the state.

The Coeur d’Alene Press reports a cow and a calf were shot last week in an area east of Lewiston.

Conservation Officer Rick Cooper says the moose were likely shot from the road, and only a small portion of the meat was taken.

Someone discovered the animals and anonymously called the Citizen’s Against Poaching hotline. Officers were then able to salvage more of the meat that was left to waste.

Authorities ask that anyone with information about the poaching to contact the hotline or the department’s regional office in Lewiston.