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Super-Scoop the Horrible Fire Next Time

After every fire season, local, state and federal officials have an opportunity to assess their response, learn from mistakes and take needed steps toward bolstering preparedness for the fires next time.

And then everybody forgets about it and moves on to the next crisis.

Sure, perhaps the fast-moving walls of flame that devoured more than 500 homes and charred tens of thousands of acres in the Southern California communities of Laguna Beach, Altadena and Malibu last year have receded in memory. But surely the wildfires that now burn in at least nine Western states underscore the need for government to take all steps necessary to upgrade and better coordinate firefighting capabilities as another fire season begins.

For starters, following last autumn’s infernos, The Times recommended some specific policy prescriptions for California. One was to create a commission to oversee the adoption and implementation of a state-of-the-art fire preparedness plan for the state. Another was for Congress and the Legislature to spend the money needed to speed up the reaction, so that wildfires can be stamped out before they rage out of control.

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For Sacramento, that means completing work on Assembly Bill 2802. Introduced by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood), the bill would appropriate $1.8 million to lease two gigantic CL-415 water-scooping aircraft to be used in the state’s hot spots on a test basis during the 1994/95 fire season. Known as “Super Scoopers,” these amphibious planes swoop down over an ocean or lake and quickly load up with 1,600 gallons of water, enough to slow almost any fire in its early stages.

Some critics are skeptical of the purchase price--$17 million per-plane--which admittedly isn’t cheap. But that amount is a far cry from the more than $1 billion in costs attributed to last year’s inferno. Moreover, California could take the lead and propose to a half-dozen other fire-prone Western states that they invest in a few Super Scoopers that would be on call and available to all. That would increase readiness while holding down each state’s costs.

In Washington, meanwhile, Congress should reconsider its decision to put off hearings on a bill by Reps. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and David Dreier (R-San Dimas) to modify outdated rules prohibiting the federal deployment of Air National Guard tankers to fight wildfires. Right now the obsolete 1932 federal law is an almost Marx Brothers-like obstacle course: It requires state officials to first use all available commercial air tankers before calling up military C-130s for firefighting. That law can’t be changed soon enough for those who reside in the West, where fire season is an inevitable part of life.


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