FEDS FURLOUGH NATIONAL GUARD TECHNICIANS WHO MAINTAIN FIREFIGHTING AIRCRAFT

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Supervisors to hear proposal Tuesday urging fast transfer of planes for firefighting from Department of Defense to U.S. Forest Service

By Miriam Raftery

October 5, 2013 (San Diego’s East County) – Shut-down of the federal government over the spending bill impasse has caused furlough of 2,000 California National Guard technicians who maintain helicopters and cargo planes that respond to major wildfires statewide. Major General David Baldwin has said that “lives are at stake” because of these “inane cuts and work stoppages,” the SF Gate reported

“The federal government needs to grow up, settle its budget mess and remember one of its primary obligations – public safety,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob  told East County Magazine.  “Any furloughs or other cutbacks that undermine aerial firefighting would be a major concern, especially as our region approaches the most dangerous stretch of the wildfire season.”

On Tuesday, Supervisors will hear a proposal by Supervisors Jacob and Greg Cox asking the U.S. Department of Defense to transfer seven surplus C-27 aircraft to the U.S. Forest Service to bolster firefighting resources in San Diego County and other areas.

The Defense Department has indicated its intent to declare the seven planes as excess aircraft available for transfer to the USFS for use in firefighting, however concerns have been raised that the government shut-down could delay that action at the height of fire season.  The planes must be demilitarized and retrofitting, so Supervisors are calling for immediate action.

Defense officials have declared many C-27J Spartans as excess, while the Forest Service is grappling with a shortage of air tankers and is looking to modernize its fleet. The C-27J operated in Afghanistan, but the Air Force planned this fall to retire the fleet.

“Rather than end up in an airplane boneyard, these aircraft could serve the American public here on our home front, where the risk of wildfire always runs high,” said Jacob, vice chairwoman of the board. “They would also add muscle to the region’s firefighting capabilities and allow the Forest Service to get an even bigger jump on backcountry fires before they get out of hand.”

Cox, the chairman of the board, spoke to federal officials about the transfer of the planes during a trip to Washington, D.C. last week. Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are among those who have said they would support such a shift.

“We can convert these massive planes, load them up with fire retardant and turn them loose on the next wildfire that threatens our region,” Cox said. “The red flag fire condition the region is facing this weekend is a stark reminder that we have to be prepared for the next wildfire and these planes would be powerful new weapons against these fires.”

The request from Supervisors Cox and Jacob will be heard at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, October 8. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. in the board chambers on the third floor of County Administration Center.

In less than a decade, the San Diego region has been engulfed by two major firestorms and battled over 50 other large wildfires. The fires resulted in destruction of thousands of homes, devastation of nearly a million acres and loss of lives.  According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, fuel moisture conditions across the western U.S. including San Diego County remain near record lows, making future firestorms a serious threat.