Airborne firefighting

In Southern California, wildfires have returned with fury unabated from last fall. Across the West, drought and a hot spring have reduced water supplies, leading fire officials to say that the current blazes have the potential to be as terrible as the 2000 and 2002 seasons’. Many hands and much luck will be required to avoid catastrophic losses. Many aircraft also will be needed, and policy-makers should investigate the airplanes now idling at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon, Ariz.

Davis-Monthan is the home base of the 355th Wing of the 12th Air Force, but it also serves as a major storage area for excess and decommissioned aircraft. More than 5,000 aircraft now sit there, including many air tankers that might be refitted to drop fire retardant.

Firefighting planes are there, although in various states of disrepair. Davis-Monthan has many C-130 Hercules aircraft, which are normally used for air supply. The Air Force base also has four-engine turboprop planes used in surveillance and anti-submarine patrols, which also might be put to service. Not all of those craft are likely to be airworthy, and some have had parts removed. It should not be too difficult to determine which planes might be sent into the Western firefights since their maintenance records are kept onsite.

Policy-makers already are speeding the inspections of the 33 air tankers that the U.S. Forest Service grounded last week due to safety concerns. On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to establish an expedited process during a meeting with administration officials and representatives from the House Resources and Transportation Committees.

Transfers of excess air tankers for firefighting purposes are governed by the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-307), which authorizes the secretary of defense to sell excess aircraft and aircraft parts to firefighting contractors, if the agreement is sanctioned by the secretary of agriculture.

Although a blue ribbon panel report issued in December 2002, “Federal Aerial Firefighting: Assessing Safety and Effectiveness,” noted that “obtaining and outfitting newer military aircraft, such as C-130s and P-3s, would only perpetuate a cycle that has proven to be unsustainable and dangerous,” the fire season has begun. Almost 30,000 fires have consumed more than 460,000 acres of land. Conditions are already critical in California, where 30,000 acres have been destroyed.

The planes standing by at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base could save both property and lives. Policy-makers should act with dispatch to put the planes to use.

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