LOS ANGELES — Amid criticism that some helicopters and planes remained grounded during the crucial early hours of this week’s fires, California officials said Friday they would look into ways to get additional firefighting aircraft into the sky more quickly when flames break out.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that nearly two dozen military helicopters stayed grounded for up to a day because state personnel who must be on board were not immediately available. The California National Guard’s two C-130 cargo planes couldn’t help because they’ve yet to be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant, though that was promised four years ago.
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads U.S. Northern Command, told the AP in an interview Friday that he would push the Air Force to get the planes fitted with new tanks and hopes to have the work done before the beginning of the 2008 fire season next fall.
Required spotters weren't available
State officials, who have steadfastly held that dangerous weather conditions were the reason more aircraft weren’t in the sky when the flames took hold last weekend, said Friday they would look at rules regarding “fire spotters,” also called “helicopter managers.”
The spotters coordinate communication and water and retardant drops among aircraft and firefighters on the ground. Under state rules, each state or military helicopter must have a spotter.
But there weren’t enough available for all the aircraft ready to fly in the first days of the fires that now have scorched a half-million acres and destroyed more than 1,800 homes from Malibu to San Diego County.
“We’re going to look at our helicopter manager situation and see if we can’t make it better,” said David Hillman, a deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, a Republican who represents parts of San Diego, was among lawmakers whose criticism of the aerial response helped prompt state forestry department Director Ruben Grijalva to alter policy and let one spotter orchestrate drops for a squadron of three helicopters.
Hillman blamed the shortage on funding. “If you could convince the Legislature to pump some money into the ... budget, I can have some more people,” he said.
Helicopter managers double as firefighters, so when the flames broke out “virtually everybody was committed almost instantly” to fighting fires on the ground, Hillman said.
The lack of organization that left helicopters stranded “was a bureaucratic condition that was established by the state,” said U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who represents part of San Diego and is running for the Republican presidential nomination. “When asked to satisfy their own condition, the announced they couldn’t.”
Other regulatory and coordination issues that may have also hampered early firefighting efforts.
Aircraft not on standby
State rules allow helicopter crews up to 24 hours to report once they’ve been called up. At the state National Guard, it took nearly a full day for crews to assemble after the call for help went out at 4 p.m. Sunday. Spotters were the last to show, by which time wind had grounded the helicopters.
Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara Democrat who heads the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security, said he would hold hearings to review why more spotters weren’t available.
Another issue: Unlike some local governments including the City of Los Angeles, the state forestry department does not pay to keep contract helicopters on standby so they are ready to fly at a moment’s notice to support the state’s fleet of aircraft.
At least one contractor called in by the state last weekend was unable to go to the fires immediately because the helicopter was committed elsewhere.
Again, Hillman said financial issues were in play.
“It’s more economical for us to call them when we need them” than to keep them on standby, he said.
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