Aircraft have an important but limited role in firefighting. In the early stages of a fire, drops of water or retardant can hold the flames in check until ground crews arrive. Aircraft can also douse fires on ridges or in canyons that firefighters can't reach. An all-out aerial attack can save money if it brings a fire under control early.
But it's a firefighting axiom that "aviation doesn't put out a fire." Only crews and engines on the ground can do that.
What's more, bulky tankers such as C-130s -- designed to carry troops, armored vehicles and other equipment -- are not well-suited to operate in California's steep canyons and mountains or at the low altitudes required for effective delivery of water and retardant.
The Forest Service and other federal agencies have about 450 firefighting planes and helicopters under contract. The planes are mainly older single- and multi-engine crop dusters and surplus military craft retrofitted for firefighting.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has its own air force. The fleet includes two dozen tankers, 11 heavy-duty helicopters, 14 twin-engine command-and-control planes and a converted DC-10 jumbo jet on lease.Cal Fire spent more than $34 million on aviation last year, including $7 million for the exclusive use of the DC-10.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is supposed to allocate aircraft based purely on professional judgment. The center, known as NIFC (pronounced nif-see), was created in 1965 to serve as the nation's operational nerve center for wildland firefighting. The idea was to insulate decision-making from political pressure.
In practice, though, politicians still manage to influence when and where planes are deployed.
A resort uses its clout
When a wildfire broke out at the edge of the Sun Valley ski resort near Ketchum, Idaho, last August, locals were dismayed to see no firefighting aircraft overhead.
The planes were busy fighting other fires deemed higher priority by NIFC. So Sun Valley homeowners and businesspeople began working the phones. In short order, they had the state's most powerful politicians pressing their case.
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and U.S. Sen. Michael D. Crapo, both Republicans, called NIFC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even the White House.
"People wanted more aircraft. Our office did put pressure on NIFC," said Crapo's press secretary, Lindsay Nothern. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."
Other elected officials did their part. State Sen. Clint Stennett, a Democrat whose district includes Sun Valley, told federal officials that the fire threatened property valued at $10 billion. He didn't need to remind them that the resort's part-time residents include California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, high-powered business executives and movie stars.
"There's a significant amount of political influence in this community, and we don't hesitate to use it," Stennett said.
The lobbying blitz turned a low-priority fire into a high-priority one.
"Once the governor started making noise, well, then the aircraft started moving in our direction," Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, the Forest Service incident commander on the Sun Valley fire, recalled with a laugh. "When you go to the White House like Butch was doing, it's got to have some effect. We started getting stuff. It was the most beautiful air show you have ever seen in your life."
At its peak, the fleet of contract aircraft at Pincha-Tulley's disposal included 19 helicopters and several air tankers. She said she was happy to have the resources and did not consider them excessive. But for much of the time, the aircraft were grounded by 70-mph winds.
The fire was brought under control in about three weeks, with no loss of life or property and at a cost estimated at $39 million. Aerial firefighting accounted for about 24% of the total.