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Air tankers, helicopters grounded asfires took hold
LOS ANGELES -- As wildfires were charging across Southern California, nearly two dozen water-dropping helicopters and two massive cargo planes sat idly by, grounded by government rules and bureaucracy.
How much the aircraft would have helped will never be known, but their inability to provide quick assistance raises troubling questions about California's preparations for a fire season that was widely expected to be among the worst on record.
It took as long as a day for Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters to get clearance early this week, in part because state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry "fire spotters" who coordinate water or retardant drops. By the time those spotters arrived, the powerful Santa Ana winds stoking the fires had made it too dangerous to fly.
The National Guard's C-130 cargo planes, among the most powerful aerial firefighting weapons, never were slated to help. The reason: They've yet to be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant, though that was promised four years ago.
"The weight of bureaucracy kept these planes from flying, not the heavy winds," said U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. "When you look at what's happened, it's disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that's put tens of thousands of people in danger."
Rohrabacher and other members of California's congressional delegation are demanding answers about aircraft deployment. And some fire officials have grumbled that a quicker deployment of aircraft could have helped corral many of the wildfires that quickly flared out of control.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials have defended the state's response, saying the intense winds prevented a more timely air attack.
"Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain," Schwarzenegger replied to a question Wednesday. "The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here -- we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government -- and they can't fly because of the wind."
Indeed, winds reaching 100 mph helped drive the flames and made it dangerous to fly. Still, four state helicopters and two from the Navy were able to take off Monday while nearly two dozen others stayed grounded.
Thomas Eversole, executive director of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, a Virginia-based not-for-profit that serves as a liaison between helicopter contractors and federal agencies, said valuable time was lost.
"The basis for the initial attack helicopters is to get there when the fire is still small enough that you can contain it," Eversole said. "If you don't get there in time, you quickly run the risk of these fires getting out of control."
The first of the 15 or so fires started around midnight Saturday. By Sunday afternoon, fires were raging in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange counties.
At the request of firefighters on the ground, at 4 p.m. Sunday the state Office of Emergency Services asked the National Guard to supply four helicopters. Under state rules, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection "spotter" must accompany each military and National Guard helicopter to coordinate water drops.
The spotters have 24 hours to report for duty, and it took nearly all that time for them and the National Guard crews to assemble. By the time they were ready to go, the winds had made it unsafe to fly.
The helicopters finally got off the ground Tuesday.
Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the forestry department, acknowledged the Guard's helicopters were ready to fly before the spotters arrived. He said state officials were surprised.
"Typically we're waiting for them to get crews," Padilla said.
The delay was even longer for Navy and Marine helicopters. They were ready to fly Monday morning but didn't get airborne until Wednesday morning, a period when the acreage that burned quadrupled to more than 250,000 and the number of homes destroyed jumped from 34 to more than 700.
Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray was among the lawmakers who learned late Tuesday night in a briefing with state officials that 19 military helicopters were not in use because there were no spotters.
Alarmed, he quickly helped broker an agreement to waive the spotter requirement, allowing flights to begin Wednesday.
"We told them, 'You don't want the public to be asking why these units weren't flying while we had houses burning,"' Bilbray told the AP.
The criticism helped prompt the forestry department's director, Ruben Grijalva, to abandon the state's long-standing policy to have a spotter aboard each aircraft and instead let one spotter orchestrate drops for a squadron of three helicopters.
"I directed them to do whatever was necessary to get those other military assets into operation," Grijalva said.
He said he could not explain why more spotters were not deployed before the flames spread to ensure that every aircraft ready to fly could take off.
Padilla said state spotters do training exercises with the Navy and National Guard and are used to working with them on fires. That's not the case with the Marines, so when helicopters from that branch were made available, the state was caught off guard and had no spotters available.
Regardless, he said, safety -- not availability of spotters -- was the overriding concern in determining when to allow aircraft into the skies.
"I'm not going to risk people's lives for a bunch of vegetation," Padilla said. "We know you have lives and property at stake, but you don't throw away firefighter lives like that."
The C-130 saga is a much different story.
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 they failed to fit into the latest C-130s. Designers were ordered back to the drawing board. Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly said Congress was assured the new tanks would be ready by 2003.
Four years later, the U.S. Forest Service and Air Force have yet to approve the revised design. Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Paula Kurtz said "technical and design difficulties" have delayed the program.
Rohrabacher and Gallegly are angered by the delay, which has left no C-130s capable of fighting fires on the West Coast. The last of the older-model C-130s with an original tank was retired by the California National Guard last year.
"It's an absolute tragedy, an unacceptable tragedy," Gallegly said.
The situation meant that rather than deploying C-130s from inside the state, Schwarzenegger was forced to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to call in the six remaining older C-130s from other states as far away as North Carolina.
None of them began fighting the fires until Wednesday afternoon.
In the meantime, the state relied mostly on smaller retardant tankers that carry about a third of the C-130's 3,000-gallon capacity.
Gallegly said such firepower was sorely needed earlier.
"I have actually flown in one and pressed the button," he said. "I know what they can do."