Politics, government and public life for Southern California

US Senators Feinstein and McCain play Santa with new Forest Service air tankers

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There was a special holiday gift tucked away in the defense bill passed by the Senate last week. The present is way too large to fit in any Christmas stocking, but it's exactly what firefighters have spent years asking for.

The number of large air tankers operated by the U.S. Forest Service has shrunk  from nearly four dozen a decade ago to just eight. And most of those are over half a century old.

But language included in the defense bill by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona will nearly double the fleet of fire retardant dropping aircraft. Seven surplus HC-130H planes from the Coast Guard will be transferred to the Forest Service and be used to drop fire retardant.

Senator Feinstein says the transfer is a “critical step to help address our ability to defend forests and communities from the threat of wildfires.”

The Air Force will spend more than $100 million to reinforce the planes, which should allow them to operate for another decade.

In addition, Feinstein and McCain added 15 C-23B Sherpas – the workhorse aircraft that will ferry cargo and smokejumpers into fire areas.

At least some of the airplanes could be ready to fight fires by the fall of 2014.

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