Guard planes not yet equipped to fight wildfires

By: AP
By: AP
Despite pressure from elected officials and the military, the Bush administration has yet to equip some California National Guard planes for firefighting - a delay that could have grave implications during the worst of the wildfire season.

A U.S. forest service firefighter battles towering flames burning along Little Tugunga Road, in the Angeles National Forest, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles on Sunday Oct. 12, 2008. Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson says the blaze has charred up to 750 acres in the rugged area of Little Tujunga Canyon. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Despite pressure from elected officials and the military, the Bush administration has yet to equip some California National Guard planes for firefighting - a delay that could have grave implications during the worst of the wildfire season.

After last year's devastating blazes killed 10 people, charred 800 square miles and destroyed nearly 2,200 homes in the state, the head of the military's Northern Command said he would push to get the C-130 aircraft into the sky.

And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned President Bush in April that it "would be reckless" to face another fire season without the planes, which are among the state's most powerful aerial firefighting weapons.

Of eight C-130s based at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station on the Pacific Coast northwest of Los Angeles, none is equipped yet to fight fires.

The firefighting gear "is still under testing and validation," said Lt. Col. Jon R. Siepmann, a Guard spokesman.

"Lives are always on the line when you are dealing with this kind of public safety issue," said Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican whose district stretches from the Los Angeles suburbs to Santa Barbara wine country.

Gallegly said he was assured as far back as 2003 that the planes would be flying. "My frustration is at an all-time high," he said.

During last year's fires, the lack of firefighting C-130s forced Schwarzenegger to ask the Pentagon to call in six older C-130s from states as far away as North Carolina. While other planes were flown in, the flames grew.

California's firefighting C-130 unit is one of four the Pentagon has positioned across the country to respond to fire disasters. When they are equipped for firefighting, the C-130 will be added to the fleet of firefighting aircraft flown by state and federal agencies and private contractors.

In fact, about 30 helicopters and planes have already been used to attack the state's most recent round of wildfires.

The grounded planes are typically called in when firefighters and other aircraft get overwhelmed by the flames. The aircraft have not yet been a factor in this week's wildfires, which have been far less severe than in 2007, when simultaneous fires burned from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

But the fear is that conditions could soon worsen. October and November are considered the riskiest months for wildfires in Southern California because that's when powerful Santa Ana winds kick up after months of bone-dry weather.

"As the climate warms and wild land fires become bigger and more intense, a rapid response is critical to prevent the spread of fires," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has pressed the administration to get the planes ready for firefighting action.

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

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

Among other advantages, the tanks being tested for the newer planes can load retardant faster than older models. But the design and testing delays have dragged on for years.

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

Even without the C-130s in California, Bush administration officials have said firefighters will have enough aircraft to protect lives 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 P-3 Orion air tankers in the state. But the P-3s are about half the size of the C-130s.

State officials are not satisfied.

"We are anxious to receive those (C-130s) in California and make them available," said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It's a little too early to tell how this season is going to end."

Siepmann, the Guard spokesman, 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.

The Department of Agriculture did not respond to requests for comment.

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