By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Good news for the wildfire-weary West: The federal government is deploying more planes to support firefighters who've been confronting bigger and badder blazes in recent years.
Under a provision in a military bill that President Barack Obama signed into law Dec. 26, the U.S. Forest Service will get 22 military aircraft -- seven HC-130H Hercules air tankers and 15 C-23B Sherpa cargo planes -- beginning this year.
The provision, authored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John McCain, R-Ariz., requires the military to transfer the planes for use throughout the U.S. But they're likely to be used the most out West, where wildfires are on the rise because of tinderbox conditions caused by a prolonged drought.
The transfers come in the midst of a steady decline in the Forest Service's aerial fleet. The agency had 44 large tankers in 2002 but only eight in early 2013, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Jim Karels, the wildfire committee chairman for the National Association of State Foresters and Florida's state forester, said Friday the seven additional C-130s will be particularly useful because they'll replace a few of the planes that are no longer in service due to age and wear and tear.
He urged Congress to restore the tanker fleet to at least the 2002 level.
"Seven is not pushing them back to where it was but it definitely helps," said Karels, the lead investigator of Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters in June. "Is it everything we want? No. Is it going to help and is it a start to help retrofit that aging fleet? Yes."
The tankers, which will be used to dump water or flame-retardant chemicals, help firefighters on the ground put out the flames more quickly. The planes are thus seen as indispensable to minimize property damage and even deaths.
"The more aircraft you've got, the better the opportunity to keep the fires small. And when you keep the fires small, they're much less costly," Karels said. "Without that initial attack tool, we know that it is much tougher . . . to keep (fires) small. And the ticket to be successful, to keep the fire costs down, to reduce destruction, it to keep that initial attack hard and keep that fire small."
The C-130s are workhorses used by more than 60 countries to transport troops and military equipment. The tankers headed to the Forest Service -- which now belong to the U.S. Coast Guard -- will be modified to carry up to 3,000-4,000 gallons of water or flame-retardant chemicals.
The Sherpa cargo planes would be used to drop "smoke-jumpers" -- firefighters parachuted into remote regions -- and transport personnel and equipment to and from fire zones, Karels said.
It's unclear how and where the Forest Service plans to deploy the 22 aircraft. The agency didn't respond to requests for comment.
McCain's office said at least two of the seven C-130s are expected to be ready for use this year because they don't need major modifications. The remaining tankers will be readied over the coming years. All 15 of the smaller cargo planes are expected to be ready for deployment in 2014.
Bill Gabbert, a retired firefighter and former wildfire manager for seven national parks in South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska, cautioned that the big tankers may take longer than expected to become ready.
If the Coast Guard had used them for ocean patrols, the sea salt could have corroded the metal, he said. Installing massive tanks to carry water or retardants and putting in doors that open in flight to drop the liquids in the path of oncoming fires takes time, said Gabbert, who blogs about wildfires and aerial suppression techniques.
"Even though the bill requires the Air Force . . . to schedule this work soon, that does not mean this work is going to get done soon," he said from South Dakota. "These (projects) may be ahead of the line, but I would be very surprised if these aircraft will be available in 2014 or even early in 2015. It could take one to three years."
Feinstein said the seven modified C-130s could together carry more than 21,000 gallons of flame retardant or water.
"Given California's worsening risk of forest fires -- as evidenced by the ongoing Pfeiffer Fire near Big Sur -- this transfer is a critical step to help address our ability to defend forests and communities from the threat of wildfires," she said in a Dec. 20 statement after the Senate approved the defense bill.
On Friday, three weeks after it started, the Pfeiffer Fire continued to burn along the picturesque Central California coast, despite the $4 million that authorities have spent to extinguish the blaze. The fire has burned a relatively modest 917 acres; bigger blazes consumed millions of acres throughout the West in 2013.
"Wildfire suppression aircraft are vital to protecting human life and property," McCain said in a statement last month. "Congress must do more to restore the Forest Service air tanker fleet, but this transfer will boost their ability to fight wildfires."
Contributing: Allison Gatlin, The Salinas Californian.
Contact Raju Chebium at email@example.com
Gannett Washington Bureau