SACRAMENTO — Federal and state officials have eliminated much-criticized procedures that caused delays of up to 24 hours before military aircraft could be pressed into service to help fight California wildfires, officials said Thursday.
Firefighting air tankers operated by the California Air National Guard will now be activated in moments at the governor's request and without further time-consuming clearances from federal departments. The C-130 military transport planes can then fly missions to save lives and property as soon as they are outfitted with firefighting equipment, which takes about two hours, officials said.
Five firefighting-equipped C-130s are stationed in California, usually at Van Nuys Airport, but sometimes at March Air Force Base in Riverside County.
The procedures were used for the first time last week, when military aircraft stationed at Van Nuys Airport, which in recent years had done more firefighting in Europe than in Southern California, flew 30 missions battling wind-fueled fires in the hills and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains.
In Governor's Control
"Basically, what we have done is made it clear that the dispatch of the Air National Guard planes is at the control of the governor and it does not have to go to Washington," said Jerry Partain, California Forestry Department director.
After the $8.5-million Normal Heights fire in San Diego last summer, in which 64 homes were destroyed, Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) and others criticized the old system. The June 30 fire was the focus of criticism because the military aircraft sat idle while state aircraft were delayed several hours by competing demands and communications problems.
Guard officials said afterward they would have gladly assisted, but state officials said using the Guard was impractical, primarily because of delays in gaining federal approval.
Requests for use of the Guard planes had to be forwarded through a federal bureaucracy that included the U.S. Forest Service, the national Fire Control Center in Idaho, the Pentagon in Washington and the Military Air Lift Command in Illinois.
"What we've had is not so much a change of policy, but a reduction of red tape," said William Medigovich, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, target of much of the criticism. He said state officials began negotiations to cut through the red tape following the devastating summer fires.
Brig. Gen. Raymond Hebrank, Air National Guard state commander, said the Guard had been prepared to fly firefighting missions, but state officials "never tried to activate us in the past. Then, when we had all those fires this year, the state became interested in it. . . . Now, we've finally come out with some procedures."