“This is a dangerous time,” Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said at the last Mountain Area Safety Taskforce meeting. The hot dry days, with little nighttime cooling, pose serious risks for fire.

Since Jan. 1, there have been 42,488 wildland fires nationally. That is the fewest number of wildland fires in the past 10 years and about 80 percent of the average number of fires from Jan. 1 through Aug. 20.

However, more than 6.9 million acres have burned, 28 percent higher than the average acreage burned from January to Aug. 20.

The Hill is fortunate to have the availability of several firefighting agencies as demonstrated by the response to last week’s Buck Fire.

Air resources are one of the many tools which fire managers want to have available in order to contain and eventually control fires. The largest firefighting agency, the U.S. Forest Service, has seen its air fleet dwindle from 43 air tankers in 2000 to only 11 last year. Two more were lost this spring. But changes and improvements, which will begin to rebuild the agency’s air support, will appear next year.

Last month, Sen. John McCain of Arizona with support from California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Florida’s Sen. Bill Nelson introduced a bill (S. 3441 or the Wildfire Suppression Aircraft Transfer Act of 2012) to direct the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force to transfer 14 excess C-27J Spartan Aircraft to the Forest Service. The Air Force plans to scrap the aircraft under its Fiscal Year 2013 Force Reduction Plan.

“The Forest Service needs to modernize its entire air tanker fleet,” said Sen. John McCain. “We have an opportunity to take the C-27J, an aircraft the Pentagon no longer wants, and give it to the Forest Service to enhance aircraft safety and lower existing maintenance costs. The C-27J should be kept in the service of the American people to help our brave fire crews, rather than sit in an airplane boneyard.”

Unlike past proposals that directed the transfer of excess military aircraft to private firefighting contractors, the legislation introduced by Senator McCain keeps the aircraft under Forest Service ownership and dedicates them solely to fighting wildfires.

This proposal has captured the attention of several groups throughout the country. Last week, Riverside County Supervisors Jeff Stone (3rd District) and Bob Buster (1st District) announced their support for the legislation and have placed the topic on the agenda of the next board of supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 28.

Both supervisors believe these aircraft will enhance the Forest Service’s efforts to fight fires throughout Southern California.

On Aug. 3, the National Association of State Foresters wrote the senators who introduced S.3441 stating their support for the bill, as well as for implementation of the Forest Service’s Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy, which was released in February.

“NASF supports a mix of aerial aviation resources including large air tankers, water scoopers, single engine air tankers and rotor wing aircraft to respond to fires in the highly variable terrain and fuel types that exist across the country,” wrote Randy Dye, NASF president and West Virginia state forester.

“As a medium air tanker, the C-27J can be effective in many parts of the country, but there is still a need for the larger new generation air tankers with a 3,000 gallon capacity in many forest types with heavy fuel loads,” Dye added.

Independent of federal legislation, the RAND Corporation recently released a study of the Forest Service’s air resources and recommended expanding the scooper type of craft.

RAND’s analysis included fixed-winged aircraft, air scoopers and helicopters and acknowledged the value of a fleet that used a variety of air resources. However, RAND’s final recommendations were much more weighted toward a fleet dominated by scoopers rather than other aircraft.

The scoopers were considered more efficient because of lower capital costs and their ability to make more drops before needing to return to base to refuel. However, on the Hill, local water sources, such as lakes Hemet and Fulmor are likely too small for scoopers. Helicopters could access this surface water more efficiently and CAL FIRE’s Hemet Ryan air base offers a close source of fuel and retardant.

Just a week ago, the Forest Service announced that it will use helicopters capable of nighttime flying and firefighting next year.

“We have made this important decision very carefully,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “We have studied night operations from every angle — risk management, business and operations — and we have concluded we can conduct night operations safely and effectively.”

The helicopters, which will be based in Southern California, would support wildfire suppression on Forest Service-protected lands, including communities and homes within and adjacent to the Angeles, Cleveland, and San Bernardino National Forests, and the southern half of the Los Padres National Forest.

Initially, they would be equipped to drop water and retardant. In the future, mission capability could expand to include incident emergency medical transport, prescribed burning, and aerial supervision of aircraft traffic in the air above an incident.

The Forest Service did fly at night in the 1970s but ceased those activities after a major crash.

As of May 14, the Forest Service had 11 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts this fire season and had the ability to mobilize an additional 16 large air tankers and 1 very large air tanker. In addition, the agency had the ability to mobilize more than 100 helicopters and Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATS) to augment the large air tanker fleet.

In March, with the aid of legislation, the Forest Service began to implement its Modernization Strategy, when it issued a contract for the purchase of the next generation of air tankers.