San Fernando Valley : Firefighting Planes Face Heated Trials

The glossy yellow-and-red firefighting airplanes called SuperScoopers have returned to Van Nuys Airport for two months of the wildfire season.

But the planes, leased for about $1.4 million, face competition from four other blaze-battling aircraft, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said Tuesday.

With the ability to carry 1,400 gallons--or 43 bathtubs' full--of water, the Canadian-built SuperScoopers are under evaluation for fighting fires driven by dry Santa Ana gusts.

Although a relief to canyon homeowners, last year's mild fire season led to an inconclusive evaluation of the planes, the chief said, as the SuperScoopers only saw action in seven fires.

At Tuesday's unveiling of the Lego-like planes, officials said the SuperScoopers require more examination.

"The SuperScooper has never really been tested [in Los Angeles County] the way we'd like it to be tested," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

So the Fire Department developed a private-public partnership among the county, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California insurers to fund the second trial period.

Dismissing the naysayers who favor helicopters for navigability during fires, Freeman said the Fire Department may eventually add SuperScoopers and more helicopters to its current fleet of eight helicopters.

"We are looking for any and every way possible to intervene and keep these wind-driven fires small," Freeman said.

If the evaluation proves the SuperScooper's mettle, the Fire Department may purchase the craft outright or continue to lease them.

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