USA — Two powerful military planes were parked on the tarmac near Point Mugu while the Springs Fire raged out of control last week. Officers at the California Air National Guard station waited for the order to attack the blaze with planes equipped to slow fires.
But the C-130J Super Hercules planes didn’t go into action until Saturday afternoon, after the worst threat had subsided following two days of fierce battle.
“We’re a little frustrated but it’s the way the system is,” said Col. Paul Hargrove, commander of the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station.
One of the planes, which some have dubbed the “Maserati of air tankers,” made a single drop of retardant south of Newbury Park on Saturday and another flew to a fire in Santa Maria. But the air battle was fought mainly by older, smaller and some say more nimble planes ordered from Riverside, Hemet, Porterville, Lancaster and San Bernardino.
By law, firefighting agencies can use the Guard’s planes only when none is left to send from their own fleets. And in this case, officials said they didn’t need any reinforcements until the third day of the wind-driven fire that raced across the county to the ocean Thursday night then jumped the Pacific Coast Highway on Friday as it threatened thousands of homes.
“They are a resource when we have depleted ours,” said Julie Hutchinson, a battalion chief for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. The agency and the U.S. Forest Service supplied the bulk of retardant-dropping planes for the air attack.
Retired Rep. Elton Gallegly said it makes no sense to have state-of-the-art planes just seconds from the fire unused in a crisis. It’s been a long-standing issue for the former congressman from Simi Valley, who introduced legislation to loosen the restrictions.
“You don’t watch it burn while you have the assets to do it,” he said. “We have hundreds of millions in these C-130s that are there and ready to go.”
Ventura County fire officials said the Guard’s planes would not have made much difference in this blaze. Fixed-wing aircraft have limited effectiveness in wind-driven fires, Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.
According to their timeline, the state-owned planes started arriving from airfields around the state shortly after 8 a.m. Thursday, the first day of the fire, about an hour after the battalion chief made the request.
“We had the aircraft we could use,” said county Assistant Fire Chief Vaughan Miller, a member of the team that managed the fire.
He said it would be great to have additional air resources, but that it’s not always possible for planes committed to the military.
“It’s not their mission,” he said. “They’re not ready for it on a day-to-day basis.”
But Gallegly and others were struck by the irony. As smoke enveloped the Point Mugu area Friday, the C-130J planes stood idle.
That day, Cal Fire sent seven air tankers and the Forest Service another one. Normally they could get there much more quickly than the Guard could mobilize its planes because of the process for activating military assets for fire fighting.
Frank Podesta, director of Cal Fire’s air operations branch, said the planes are assigned from airfields closest to the fires. Planes under the control of the state and the Forest Service are dedicated to fire fighting, while the Guard planes may be needed for some military purpose, he said.
“Once we start depleting our own assets, we could go to the Air National Guard,” he said. “That takes time to get those crews. We have to go through the governor’s office.”
But in this case, the planes had already been loaded with the units that drop the retardant in preparation for a training exercise, officials said.
“We can be ready to go in two hours,” said Maj. Kimberly Holman, spokeswoman for the 146th Airlift Wing.
State officials told the Guard their planes would probably be needed Friday because of continued red flag warnings and activated them Friday afternoon, Holman said. “Because of the high winds they waited until Saturday to actually launch us,” she said.
The planes used in the fire battle were decades old, compared with the Guard planes built in the 2000s and modified with a modular firefighting system delivered in 2009. The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System slides into the back of the planes built for military transport. Richard Cree, a senior engineer at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said the systems can drop up to 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, hundreds more than the older planes do. The idea is to stop the fire from growing by spreading a line of retardant on the ground.
Cal Fire’s 23 air tankers are military surplus planes dating from the Korean War, but have new motors and been completely refurbished, Hutchinson said.
“They’re a very effective aircraft for the initial attack because of their size,” she said. “They can get into places the large aircraft can’t get into.”
The U.S. Forest Service added two tankers during the first couple days of the fire, which flew out of San Bernardino, where they had been dispatched to other fires, spokesman Stanton Floria said. The agency also provided other air support, including nine helicopters and four planes.
The Forest Service contracts with two companies that own the aging fleet of tankers. They have an average age of 50 and eight exist nationwide. Officials announced Monday that they planned to modernize their fleet by awarding contracts for seven additional planes.
Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said the C-130s are a valuable backup.
“We use those aircraft a lot,” she said. “We don’t hesitate to call them into service when our commercial air tankers are committed or not readily available.”
Hargrove said the planes, which will go 300 knots or 345 mph, were used to fight fires 86 times last year.
“We’re faster as far as getting to the fire,” he said.
He said the Guard has done everything possible to make the system of activation quicker.
“Now it’s a matter of the incident commander or the person in charge of Cal Fire requesting the MAFFS.”
One improvement came when for the first time Cal Fire’s planes were able to reload at the air base outside Point Mugu rather than flying back to an airfield in Lancaster, Hargrove said.
He said the agreement had been a couple years in the works but first became operational during this fire.