Air tankers delayed as Cal fire season reawakens

Air tankers delayed as Cal fire season reawakens

15 October 2008

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USA — The Bush administration has failed to outfit massive California Air National Guard cargo planes for firefighting duty despite pressure from the military and elected officials—a delay that could have grave implications as the state confronts the worst of its wildfire season.

After last year’s devastating blazes killed 10 people, charred 800 square miles and destroyed nearly 2,200 homes in the state, Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, head of the U.S. Northern Command, said he would push to get the C-130 planes in the air.

And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned President Bush in April that it “would be reckless” to face another fire season without the aircraft—among the most powerful aerial firefighting weapons.

The job hasn’t been completed. There are eight C-130s at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station on the Ventura County coast 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, but none is equipped to fight fires.

Firefighting gear that needs to be installed on the planes “is still under testing and validation,” said Lt. Col. Jon R. Siepmann, a Guard spokesman.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican whose district stretches from the Los Angeles suburbs to Santa Barbara wine country, said he was assured as far back as 2003 the planes would be flying.

“Lives are always on the line when you are dealing with this kind of public safety issue,” said Gallegly. “My frustration is at an all-time high.”

The grounded planes have not been a factor in California’s latest spate of wildfires. The hulking Guard planes typically get called in when local, state and U.S. Forest Service firefighters and aircraft get overmatched.

This week’s blazes have been far less severe—and more confined—compared to 2007, when simultaneous fires burned from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

But the fear is that coming weeks could be worse. October and November are considered the riskiest period for wildfires in Southern California, when powerful Santa Ana winds kick up after months of bone-dry weather.

“As the climate warms and wildland fires become bigger and more intense, a rapid response is critical to prevent the spread of fires,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has pressed the administration to get the planes ready for firefighting action.

Bush administration officials have said repeatedly the planes would be ready before the fire season this year, but that engineering and electrical issues needed to be resolved to fit the planes with the firefighting gear.

The tanks being tested for the newer planes can reload retardant more quickly than older models, among other advantages. But the design and testing delays have dragged on for years.

The Forest Service and a contractor have been wrestling with several issues, according to internal records obtained by The Associated Press, including a faulty emergency switch and the way retardant disperses after it is dropped by the plane.

Scott Fisher, the project manager for the Forest Service, said a contract calls for the eight California planes to be ready by the end of December, but some could be in the air sooner.

During last year’s fires, AP disclosed that despite repeated assurances the Guard’s C-130s were never outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant.

The situation meant that rather than deploying newer model C-130s from inside the state, Schwarzenegger was forced during last year’s fires to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to call in the six remaining older C-130s from states as far away as North Carolina. The fires raged on while the planes flew in from elsewhere.

Bush administration officials have said that even without the C-130s in California, enough firefighting aircraft will be available this year to protect the public and property. Large tankers can be brought in from other states, in advance of predicted high winds that could spark fires.

Because of the delays with the Guard planes, Feinstein’s office said the administration will station two air tankers, P-3 Orions, in the state to bolster firefighting. But the C-130s are about twice as large as the P-3s.

That hasn’t fully satisfied state officials.

The C-130s should “be given a high priority and be completed,” said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, warning of continued fire threat.

“We are anxious to receive those in California and make them available,” he added. “It’s a little too early to tell how this season is going to end.”

This week about 30 helicopters and planes operated by the government and contractors have been dumping water or retardant on six fires in the state. Government officials say the deployment of planes and helicopters went smoothly, unlike last year when some helicopters remained grounded for a day or more because of bureaucratic delays.

Since last year, officials have increased the number of so-called helicopter managers who direct water drops while flying with military pilots, after a shortage last year grounded some helicopters during the fires.

Rules have been changed to allow some military helicopters to fly without managers, if conditions warrant, while a new position was created to oversee military helicopters while in flight. Also, the U.S. Marines agreed last year to train with state firefighters—a move to get more helicopters into the air quickly when wildfires break out.

“We are applying the lessons we learned from the 2007 fires,” said Ray Chaney, a state fire battalion chief in charge of special operations.

More than a decade ago, Congress ordered replacement of the aging removable tanks for the military planes because of safety concerns and worries that they wouldn’t fit with new-model aircraft. California’s firefighting C-130 unit is one of four the Pentagon has positioned across the country to respond to fire disasters.

New tanks were designed, but have yet to be cleared for the latest C-130s.

The Bush administration assured state officials that the C-130s would be outfitted with the gear by July. Then, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said in May that the planes could be ready by September if test flights were successful. The agency oversees the Forest Service, which owns the firefighting equipment.

Siepmann said Schwarzenegger recommended that the state buy its own gear for the planes, but the request was rejected by the Legislature in a year when California faced a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Rey did not respond to requests for comment.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gary Ross, a spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command, said the Air Force and Forest Service are “working through design and integration challenges” for the C-130 tanks.

“Of highest priority are air crew and aircraft safety in the testing and fielding of any new system,” Ross said in a statement.

In fighting wildfires, helicopters and planes each have a role supporting firefighters on the ground. Fast-flying planes can carry large payloads of retardant to areas inaccessible to fire engines or bulldozers, but must fly back to a base to reload. Helicopters, though generally slower in the air, can fill up their water buckets in lakes, streams—even a swimming pool, dumping frequent loads.

Wind is a factor, sometimes grounding aircraft. It can also scatter water or retardant, limiting its effectiveness.

“The fallacy is these put out fires. They contain them, so the guys on the ground can get in there and put them out,” said Thomas Eversole, executive director of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, a Virginia-based nonprofit that serves as a liaison between helicopter contractors and federal agencies.

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