Air tanker drops in wildfires are often just for show
The bulky aircraft are reassuring sights to those in harm's way, but their use can be a needless and expensive exercise to appease politicians. Fire officials call them 'CNN drops.'
By Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers, Second of five parts
July 29, 2008
The deadly 2003 Cedar fire was raging through San Diego County. Rep. Duncan Hunter, whose home in Alpine would burn to the ground, couldn't understand why military aircraft hadn't been called in to fight the blaze. He decided to do something about it.
Hunter phoned Ray Quintanar, regional aviation chief for the U.S. Forest Service, and demanded that giant C-130 cargo planes be mobilized to attack the fire with retardant.
Quintanar explained that winds were too high and visibility too poor for aircraft to operate. Forest Service air tankers had already been grounded. But, as both men recall the episode, Hunter would not be dissuaded. He told Quintanar to call "Mr. Myers" and rattled off a Washington, D.C., phone number.
"Who's he?" Quintanar asked.
"He's the one with all the stars on his chest standing next to Don Rumsfeld," Hunter replied, describing Gen. Richard B. Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When Quintanar resisted, Hunter called Washington and pleaded his case directly with Myers. Over the next two days, six C-130 Hercules transports were dispatched to Southern California from bases in Wyoming, North Carolina and Colorado. The planes saw action once the weather improved, but in Quintanar's view they contributed little to controlling the fire.
Hunter says he has no regrets about his end run around the chain of command. "California was on fire, I got 'em the planes," he said in a recent interview. "That's my job."
To professional firefighters, though, it was a prime example of a "political air show," the high-profile use of expensive aircraft to appease elected officials.
Fire commanders say they are often pressured to order planes and helicopters into action on major fires even when the aircraft won't do any good. Such pressure has resulted in needless and costly air operations, experienced fire managers said in interviews.
The reason for the interference, they say, is that aerial drops of water and retardant make good television. They're a highly visible way for political leaders to show they're doing everything possible to quell a wildfire, even if it entails overriding the judgment of incident commanders on the ground.
Firefighters have developed their own vernacular for such spectacles. They call them "CNN drops."
Not surprisingly, really. These crooks will do anything to look good.