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Calif. wants Corps to train in firefighting drill

Oct. 30, 2007 - 05:12AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 30, 2007 - 05:12AM  |  
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State firefighters want the Marines to commit to battling California wildfires after confusion over flight rules and the availability of military aircraft left some helicopters grounded early on in last week's deadly blazes.

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State firefighters want the Marines to commit to battling California wildfires after confusion over flight rules and the availability of military aircraft left some helicopters grounded early on in last week's deadly blazes.

The California National Guard and the Navy train each year with state firefighters, and the drills pay off when aircraft are called in to fight fires, officials say.

But the Marines, whose Camp Pendleton base was close to the worst of the fires, have no comparable agreement, even though the state for years has recognized the need to improve how its military aircraft are deployed in wildfires.

"It would take time and effort, but it's a commitment the Marine Corps should make," said Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Maj. Alan Crouch, spokesman for Marine Corps Installation West in Southern California, said he couldn't immediately comment on the possibility of entering into an agreement to train with state firefighters.

"We will continue to work closely with local officials and support their efforts," Crouch said.

The Associated Press reported last week that Marine, Navy and National Guard helicopters were grounded because state personnel required to be onboard weren't immediately available. And the National Guard's two newest C-130 cargo planes couldn't help because they've yet to be outfitted with tanks needed to carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant.

The need for an agreement with the Marines "is very evident. When we have emergencies like this and you want to put those assets to work, you want to make sure they can easily blend into the operation," he said.

Under current rules, Padilla said, Marine helicopters are not available during the early stages of fires, when quick action can mean the difference between limited damage and potential tragedy. The Iraq war stood in the way of an earlier agreement with the Marines, he said.

Three years ago, a panel appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said finding ways to quickly get military helicopters and planes airborne to battle out-of-control wildfires should be a "high priority." Yet, last week, delays launching aircraft revealed a system still suffering from communication and planning shortfalls.

The Governor's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, formed after 2003 wildfires destroyed more than 3,600 homes, urged the state to clarify and improve policies and regulations for using military aircraft in firefighting. The report also recommended a host of other changes, including buying new helicopters and fire engines.

Schwarzenegger said as far back as September 2004 that his administration was working with the federal government to make sure plans to use military helicopters and airplanes were "efficient and effective." However, when the latest fires flamed out of control Oct. 21, not all available military aircraft were quickly pressed into service.

The problems were highlighted by Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather, who said last week he could have gotten control of a blaze near Irvine in its early stages with more support from aircraft.

"It's very troubling that something that was identified as a high priority doesn't appear to me to have been treated with the urgency and respect that it deserved," said state Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara Democrat who heads the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security.

Nava has promised hearings as soon as mid-November to review the state's response to the wildfires.

The state's preparedness could get tested again this week, when moderate Santa Ana winds are expected to return to Southern California. The state is deploying aircraft in preparation for possible fires, Schwarzenegger said.

"There are inevitably mistakes that have been made, certain things that fell short. I think it's not the right time now to point fingers," Schwarzenegger said.

Military aircraft are called in to supplement state and local fire resources when needed. That was the case last week when wind-fanned flames devoured more than a half-million acres and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

After insisting for days that the winds were the reason some helicopters didn't get airborne more quickly, Schwarzenegger acknowledged Saturday that the firefighting effort might have been more effective if more state "fire spotters," also called helicopter managers, had been available at the outset.

The spotters play a crucial role coordinating water or retardant drops, and under state rules each federal helicopter must carry one.

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