Los Angeles, USA — Three years ago, a state-appointed panel said findingways to quickly get military helicopters and planes airborne to battle ragingwildfires should be a “high priority.” Yet, last week, delayslaunching aircraft revealed a system still suffering from communication andplanning shortfalls.
The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, formed after 2003 fires destroyedmore than 3,600 homes, urged the state to “clarify and improve”policies and regulations for using military aircraft in firefighting. The reportalso recommended a host of other changes, including buying new helicopters andfire engines.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said as early as September 2004 that hisadministration was working with the federal government to ensure that plans touse military helicopters and airplanes were “efficient and effective.”However, when the latest fires grew out of control on Oct. 21, not all availablemilitary aircraft were quickly pressed into service.
The Associated Press reported last week that Marine, Navy and National Guardhelicopters were grounded because state personnel required to be on boardweren’t immediately available. And the National Guard’s two newest C-130 cargoplanes couldn’t help because they’ve yet to be outfitted with tanks needed tocarry thousands of gallons of fire retardant.
“It’s very troubling that something that was identified as a highpriority doesn’t appear to me to have been treated with the urgency and respectthat it deserved,” said Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara Democratwho heads the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Services and HomelandSecurity. He has promised hearings on the state’s response to the fires.
Military aircraft are called in to supplement state and local fire resourcesas needed. That was the case last week when more than a dozen fires explodedamid fierce Santa Ana winds that fanned the flames. The fires devoured more thana half-million acres and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
On Saturday, state and federal officials blamed each other for delays gettingwater-dropping helicopters off the ground. The head of the state’s firefightingagency said the military failed to commit to training needed to launchhelicopters quickly, and that the Forest Service neglected to provide enough”fire spotters,” or helicopter managers.
After insisting for days that the harsh winds kept helicopters from gettingairborne more quickly, Schwarzenegger said Saturday that firefighting might havebeen more effective if more state spotters had been available sooner.
State rules require each federal helicopter to carry a spotter to helpcoordinate water or retardant drops.
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, and other members of California’scongressional delegation criticized the state for its handling of militaryhelicopters in the fires’ early days. Hunter said the state has created rules onspotters that it can’t fulfill.
State agreements with the Navy and National Guard allow for statefirefighting personnel to train with them. But there’s still no agreement withthe Marines, even though some of the worst fires were near the Marines’ CampPendleton.
Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the state forestry department, said theMarines’ responsibilities in the Iraq war prevented them from committing totrain and provide resources.
Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a Marines spokesman, did not return a phone callMonday.
U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. ForestService, said Monday that the lack of a training agreement with the Marines as”probably something we need to look into.” But he said there have beenimprovements since the governor’s report.
He disagreed with accounts by Hunter and others that some military aircraftwere stranded. Many aircraft could not be used because of winds, he said.
The Forest Service is important in California firefighting because the stateincludes vast stretches of federal land.
Sheldon Gilbert, who heads the California Fire Chiefs Association, also citedprogress since the report. He noted that some helicopters now carry radios tocommunicate directly with ground crews.
“Is there more to do? Yes,” said Gilbert, who is chief of theAlameda County Fire Department. “I’m sure there are things we can do in thefuture to continue to streamline the process.”