"It was a politician trying to play fireman and thinking the answer was air tankers," he said.
The big money on fires is expended on high-performance helicopters, which fire bosses love for their versatility. They can often fly when wind or weather ground fixed-wing aircraft. Commanders use them to ferry personnel and supplies as well as to drop water and retardant.
On a single day of last year's Zaca fire in Los Padres National Forest, the use of one Sikorsky S-64 heavy-lift helicopter cost taxpayers nearly $65,000 -- $32,760 to keep the machine on standby for 14 hours and $6,370 per hour for five hours of flight time, Forest Service records show. By the end of that week, the bill for the helicopter had reached $368,645. Dozens of helicopters worked the Zaca during the four months it took to put the fire out.
To rein in aviation costs, Forest Service officials have tried to curb unnecessary use of helicopters. Internal memos have taken aim at "heli-mopping" -- using the aircraft to douse remnants of a fire or to perform chores that ground crews could do more effectively.
The leasing of helicopters is only part of their cost. Whereas air tankers fly from established bases, helicopters need bases near a fire, which have to be created ad hoc, often in backcountry lacking roads, utilities and water.
Forest Service contracting officers lease land from property owners. Heavy equipment sometimes has to be brought in to carve roads and clear terrain. Water trucks are hired to keep dust down.
Pilots, mechanics, fueling crews and other support personnel must be transported to the scene and provided with food, water, supplies and a place to sleep. A team of emergency medical personnel is required at all times.
During the Zaca fire, the government paid Tower Tech Inc. of Meadow Vista, Calif., $4,700 a day for a portable air traffic control tower and two air traffic specialists.
ICL Performance Products in Ontario operated a mobile retardant mixing station for a base fee of $3,345 per day, plus $1,000 to $4,000 in daily operating charges. The retardant itself cost an additional $2,095 a ton; water to mix it was delivered by a $1,761-a-day truck.
Such outlays can continue for months on a wildland fire.
One of the busiest companies in aerial firefighting is Aero Union Corp. of Chico. It flies eight fixed-wing P-3 Orion tankers under contract with the Forest Service. The company also produces the pressurized tank system that C-130s use to drop retardant.
Aero Union has been awarded federal fire-suppression contracts totaling at least $169 million since 2000, government records show.
Columbia Helicopters of Aurora, Ore., secured nearly $90 million in fire contracts with the Forest Service over the same period, the records show. The company's heavy-lift helicopters also remove timber from national forests.
Some aviation companies are politically active. Executives and employees of Columbia, for instance, contributed more than $400,000 to federal candidates and election committees in the last 10 years, according to campaign finance records. In its home state, the company made $868,000 in political donations over the same period.
Columbia President Michael A. Fahey said in an e-mail that the contributions "have never been made to create influence. . . . We believe our unrivaled capabilities and exceptional efforts on the fire lines speak entirely for themselves."
Aviation contractors, including many smaller companies, look after their interests in Washington through Helicopter Assn. International. The trade group has reported spending $856,000 lobbying Congress over the last 10 years on a variety of issues, including funding for wildland firefighting.
Skirting the rules
Under firefighting protocols, military aircraft are to be sent to a fire only if no civilian planes are available and only if federal or state officials ask for help. In reality, elected leaders frequently finesse these rules.