Gibbons seeks use of military equipment to fight wildfires

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RENO -- After a catastrophic 2002 fire season punctuated by the grounding of part of the Forest Service's aerial firefighting fleet, Rep. Jim Gibbons has reintroduced a bill that would authorize the use Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve planes to battle flames.

Gibbons, R-Nev., and Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., on Wednesday reintroduced the Wildfire Response Enhancement Act.

The bill was first introduced last summer after the Forest Service permanently grounded 11 C-130s and PB4Y-2 planes owned by private contractors following two crashes that killed five crew members.

Congress adjourned, however, before the House acted on the bill.

"As our states continue to recover from one of the worst fire seasons in our nation's history, we must now work to ensure that our firefighters have every resource available to help them battle wildland blazes and keep our citizens and their property safe," Gibbons, vice chairman of the House Resources Committee, said in a written statement.

The bill would allow the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Interior to call in federal firefighting equipment whenever they felt it necessary to respond in a timely manner.

Under current law, government equipment, in most cases cannot be used until available commercial equipment has been exhausted.

"When a wildfire is blazing, minutes sometimes make the difference between quick containment and catastrophe," Gallegly said.

Three people were killed in June when the wings separated from a 46-year-old C-130A being used to fight a fire in the Sierra Nevada near Walker, Calif. In late July, a 57-year-old PB4Y-2 broke up and crashed fighting a Colorado fire, killing its two-man crew.

Both planes were operated by Hawkins and Powers Aviation, a Greybull, Wyo., company that contracts with the Forest Service to provide firefighting tankers.

Also in July, an Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama helicopter suffered an engine failure and crashed in Colorado, killing the pilot.


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