Shuffling firefighting planes could make tanker unavailable for California

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A firefighting DC-10 plane drops fire retardant on a ridge line to protect communication towers in Palmdale, California. The U.S. Forest Service is doubling the number of air tankers available to fight wildfires, but doing so could short-shift California's firefighting force.

The U.S. Forest Service is doubling the number of air tankers available to fight wildfires, but expanding the fleet could hurt firefighting efforts California.

The Forest Service doesn’t own planes, it leases them. And the Service is adding to its borrowed fleet of air tankers by contracting with other states and provinces. Five of the planes will come from Alaska and Vancouver, while one will fly in straight from California.

CalFire used to have exclusive use of the giant DC-10 that can drop up to 12,000 gallons of flame retardant in as little as eight seconds. Now, because of budget cuts in Sacramento, CalFire will share that plane with the U.S. Forest Service on a first-call first-served basis. In other words, if the Forest Service is using the plane to fight fires in Colorado or Oregon, California’s out of luck.

CalFire points out that it still has the nation’s largest fleet of firefighting aircraft, with 23 air tankers and 11 helicopters.

The Forest Service has not changed the policy that forbids its contracted firefighting aircraft to fly after dark. People have criticized that policy after planes stayed on the ground in the early hours of the 2009 Station Fire.

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