- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Recently yet another aging commercial firefighting plane crashed in Southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest, killing both people on board.

While the crew was not fighting a wildfire at the time, the crash is a tragic reminder of the state of our airborne firefighting equipment and the need to upgrade our capabilities and revise our laws to get the best equipment in the air at the earliest moment possible.

I became involved in this issue early in my congressional career. Wildfires raged around Southern California and the California Air National Guard air tankers based at Point Mugu sat on the tarmac. Because of the Depression-era Economy Act of 1932, the National Guard could not launch its aircraft until all commercial aircraft had been exhausted.

It didn’t matter if the National Guard aircraft was the closest available equipment. It didn’t matter if it would take days for the commercial aircraft to arrive. It didn’t matter if the National Guard aircraft was the most modern available. It didn’t matter that taxpayers paid to have the equipment in the air when needed. The aircraft sat on the tarmac.

History repeated itself last year during Colorado’s 138,000-acre Hayman fire, which claimed 132 homes. The Air Force Reserve unit in Colorado Springs — only 20 miles away — wasn’t given the go-ahead to take to the air until nearly a week after the blaze began.

I am a staunch supporter of private enterprise. I do not believe the federal government should compete with the private sector for services the private sector can provide more efficiently. But I do believe that when people’s homes and lives are in danger, you respond quickly with everything you have. That’s just common sense.

With that in mind, I introduced a bill in March that I had first introduced in 1993. The Wildfire Response Enhancement Act gives the secretaries of interior and agriculture the option of calling Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard firefighting planes into service before all commercial aircraft have been fully deployed.

In May, I joined with my colleague Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican, to rework the bill as a two-year pilot program. We introduced it as an amendment to the fiscal 2004 Defense Authorization Act. With our amendment attached, the Defense Act passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the Senate did not include the provision in its version, and the bill is now in conference. For the safety of citizens across the United States, I urge the conferees to retain the Hefley-Gallegly provision.

The fleet of commercial firefighting aircraft is, on average, 40 to 50 years old, and these aircraft are not being replaced. After three aircraft crashed during last year’s fire season, the Federal Aviation Administration toughened certification standards for surplus military aircraft available to contractors. By Forest Service estimates, that could decrease the contractor supply by 30 percent. And planes are still crashing.

The federally owned fleet is not huge. The Air National Guard has two planes each in California, North Carolina and Wyoming; and the Air Force Reserve has two in Colorado. They are not going to displace the dozens of commercial aircraft that take to the air in major wildfires. Nor can military aircraft be used to fight all types of fires. But when they are usable, their rapid deployment could save a home or a life. For that reason, the current restrictions must be lifted.

We are in the process of modernizing the taxpayer-owned fleet. At my initiative, Congress authorized replacement of Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS), used to drop retardant from the planes, on the C-130s at the base in my district, and four new C-130Js were ordered.

Last year, Congress approved my request to complete the acquisition of MAFFS, and to allow the defense secretary to begin a multiyear contract to buy new C-130J aircraft for the four Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve bases where the firefighting planes are based. These planes and equipment can carry more retardant than any commercial plane and be loaded and in the air much more quickly.

It makes no sense to invest millions of dollars to increase our firefighting response, then leave equipment on the tarmac while fires rage. There are no good reasons to oppose the Hefley-Gallegly provision and many good reasons to support it.

Elton Gallegly is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California.

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