Aircraft grounded in red tape



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. 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," Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher told The Associated Press. "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. Some fire officials, most notably Orange County's Chip Prather, grumbled that a quicker deployment of aircraft could have helped corral wildfires that quickly flared out of control and so far have burned 500,000 acres from Malibu to the Mexican border.

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 angrily 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 exceedingly 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 nonprofit 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 late Saturday night. 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 five 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. 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.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, state officials rejected the idea they were ill-prepared, noting more than 20 helicopters and airplanes were stockpiled in Southern California ahead of the wildfires because of the danger of flames erupting.

But heavy wind conditions after the fires began meant "there was very little opportunity" to fly, said the forestry department's director, Ruben Grijalva. "This is not a resource shortage on those days, this is a weather-condition problem."

That explanation doesn't jibe with what U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray said he was told by state officials Tuesday night. Bilbray, who represents parts of San Diego, and other lawmakers were told 19 Navy and Marine helicopters were ready to fly, some as early as Sunday, but didn't take off because there were no state fire spotters to accompany the crews, said Bilbray's spokesman, Kurt Bardella.

Alarmed, Bilbray 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 time the helicopters got airborne, the acreage burned had quadrupled to more than 250,000 and the number of homes destroyed jumped from 34 to more than 700.

Criticism from Bilbray and other lawmakers on the call helped prompt Grijalva on Wednesday 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.

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.

Padilla said he didn't want the Marines to participate because they "would have been a distraction" since they weren't trained.

"It's no different from me walking into Baghdad and saying, "I'm ready to fight the bad guys,'" he said. "They would no more want me in their arenas, not being trained, prepared and equipped, than I would want them if they were not trained, prepared and equipped."

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."

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