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Congress sends firefighting planes to California, but they won’t help this year

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Firefighters watch as air tankers drop fire retardant ahead of the River Fire in Lakeport, Calif., on Aug. 1, 2018. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON — More help is on the way for the increasingly devastating California fire season, thanks to Congress.

Only trouble is, that help won’t be there this year, possibly not next year or the year after that. And the last time Congress tried to provide the same resources, after years of work and approving tens of millions of dollars, nothing happened.

The Carr fire ravaging California has destroyed more than 1,000 homes in and around Redding, north of San Francisco, and killed at least six people. It’s currently the seventh most destructive fire in California’s history. State officials don’t expect the rest of this year’s fire season to ease.

The newly authorized firefighting program mandates that seven C-130 Coast Guard aircraft be converted into air tankers and given to Cal Fire, the primary state firefighting agency.

Cal Fire would then use the aircraft, larger than many in its current fleet of about 60 planes, for carrying larger amounts of flame retardant.

“These C-130s fit the bill we need,” said Scott McLean, Cal Fire spokesman. “They’re not as nimble as some of our other planes, but they fit a need we’ve been asking for for quite a while.”

Cal Fire currently uses planes borrowed from the National Guard for carrying larger amounts of flame retardant, rather than planes of its own.

Besides the change in agency, the newly authorized program is nearly identical to one OK’d by Congress and President Barack Obama in 2013 that planned to transfer seven C-130 aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Air Force, which handled maintenance and conversion of the planes to air tankers, was authorized to spend up to $130 million on the planes.

The planes never made it to the Forest Service. It took the Air Force two years to award the contract to build and install the retardant delivery systems on the seven planes. Two years after that, in February, the Forest Service under the Trump administration, announced it was seeking termination of the program, preferring to continue contracting air tankers from private companies.

By the time the Forest Service asked to end the program no permanent fire retardant systems were installed in any of the planes, though two have fought fires in California this year.

Those planes still need other modifications, such as bomb bay doors for dropping flame retardant from the bottom and wing strengthening, before they’ll be considered permanent fixtures. The other five planes aren’t cleared for even temporary use.

After sinking between $60 million to $80 million of taxpayer money into converting the planes, they were all going to be scrapped if the program had been terminated. Instead, work on the planes will continue and they will be transferred to Cal Fire when completed.

The Forest Service, unlike Cal Fire, does not currently operate any planes of its own, so implementing the new system will be less of an undertaking for Cal Fire than it would have been for the Forest Service.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who pushed for the new program to be included in the latest defense policy bill, see the program as much more effective this time.

The bill also increased the authorized spending amount to $150 million, an additional $20 million from the original cost of the project, at the Air Force’s request. The Air Force has estimated it will need $67.4 million to complete the planes.

“We want to get them there quickly … fire danger is increasing in California,” Feinstein said. “You need to be able to put them out quicker, before they get huge and before they build.”

Feinstein is sending a letter to the Pentagon and the Air Force asking them to expedite maintenance on the planes for Cal Fire’s use as soon as possible, but it’s unclear exactly how much longer it will take. No one is expecting they’ll be ready for this fire season.

The Air Force did not respond to a request seeking comment.

“They’re not all built by any means, if any of them are, and we need to get pilots,” McLean said. “It will take at least a year … I’m hopeful it would take less, but we have to be realistic.”

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