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Where Is That Super Scooper? : Exhausted firefighters near San Luis Obispo could have used the help

For two days now almost 2,000 firefighters have struggled to contain a fast-moving brush fire that has burned more than 65 square miles along California’s Central Coast, between Atascadero and San Luis Obispo. The second big blaze of California’s 1994 fire season has also destroyed at least two dozen homes and other structures, a loss made even more painful by the fact it was started by arson.

Many factors in wildfires, like dry and windy weather, of course cannot be controlled, but government is far from powerless: It can improve firefighters’ response time and equipment. The foremost tool for such improvement in California, experts say, would be the CL-415 “Super Scooper"--an airplane designed to complement water-dropping helicopters. The amphibious craft can pick up 1,600 gallons of water at a time from an ocean or a lake and then dump it, often within minutes, on a wildfire. Many state legislators and others maintain that, at the least, California should test the CL-415. Gov. Pete Wilson, facing a huge budget deficit, has held back because of the cost: nearly $1 million to lease a single plane. To get around this financial roadblock, we have proposed that the state cooperate with the federal government so that the cost could be split among several Western states, all of which could use planes from a small fleet of Super Scoopers to fight forest or brush fires at one time or another.

Could the deployment of Super Scoopers have slowed, or even halted, a major blaze such as this latest one? We’ll never know until the craft is given a full test in the rigors of a Western fire season--like the one we now face.


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