California budget cuts force cancellation of firefighting jumbo jet

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A 10 Tanker, DC-10 firefighting jet, flies through a smoky sky while dropping Phos-Check fire retardant as firefighters try to prevent the 3,500-acre Sheep fire from reaching the mountain town of Wrightwood, a half-mile away, on October 4, 2009 near Wrightwood, California.

On the eve of wildfire season in Southern California, the nation’s biggest firefighting jet may stay earthbound. That’s the plan, anyway - unless the jet’s Victorville operator and state officials can reach some sort of agreement over a new seasonal contract.

You’ve probably seen footage of the DC-10 supertanker, zooming above a raging wildfire as it unleashes a long torrent of rust-colored fire retardant. It’s impressive – and expensive.

The $7 million-a-year deal required the 10 Tanker Air Carrier company to keep its pair of supertankers tanked up and ready to fly at a moment’s notice.

“All big fires were once small fires. You get the quick response and more money will be saved than spent, so it's penny wise and pound foolish" for California to not renew the three-year contract, says 10 Tanker chief exec Rick Hatton.

Hatton says the jets will still be available as needed within 24 hours, but it’s unclear for how long. He’ll eventually have to mothball the jets unless the state reinstates its contract for Cal Fire, or he can find other clients.

“There’s always interest, but there’s always budget issues," says Hatton. "What California should do is have one or both of these on contract and then lend them to other states and be reimbursed. It’s not Cal Fire that has the problem with it, it’s the budget process. They’ve been told to cut more money and we were that last thing to go.”

But not the only thing to go – Cal Fire has also trimmed the number of firefighters on engine crews from four to three. A Cal Fire spokeswoman calls the supertanker cancellation “the best choice among poor alternatives.” The agency may face further cutbacks next wildfire season.

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