LOS ANGELES – Eight Marine helicopters were at the ready to help fight the California wildfires but were grounded due to government red tape, lawmakers said Friday.
This prevented some firefighting teams from getting to the largest U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina.
Reps. Darrell Issa, Duncan Hunter and Brian Bilbray — all California Republicans — arrived Tuesday evening in southern California for an emergency services update meeting on the fires, and were told that a California policy that required a state firefighter to fly on military flights was keeping available military choppers out of the air.
"This was a mistake," Issa spokesman Frederick Hill told FOXNews.com Friday, speaking of the policy. "There's no question that the process needs to be re-evaluated here."
Since then, the number of helicopters and planes available and ready to go have increased dramatically. The National Guard has provided seven helicopters for water-dropping, and other military branches have loaned another 11 helicopters just for dousing flames. The Pentagon has more than five dozen helicopters available for non-firefighting missions.
California fire officials are using seven of their own helicopters, and they have 20 of their own planes at their disposal. Local fire departments and private contractors also are providing air support.
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Firefighters began battling the out-of-control blaze early Sunday, and Sunday afternoon, firefighters called for four extra helicopters from the National Guard to help in the fight, The Associated Press reported. But it took nearly 24 hours for the "military helicopter managers" — referred to by the AP as "fire spotters" — to assemble.
California policy requires the so-called fire spotters to fly with military helicopter pilots because they are not trained in California firefighting policy, and it is good precaution to fly in the chaotic situation that is air-supported firefight, said Capt. Steve Mueller, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — or Cal-Fire.
After the Tuesday meeting, Issa, Hunter and Bilbray quickly brokered a deal between Cal-Fire and the Marines that basically let the Marines request Cal-Fire to lift its policy on the military helicopter managers, thus freeing up the helicopters.
The Associated Press reported that it took as long as a day for Navy, Marine and California National Guard helicopters to get clearance to fly earlier this week, in part because of the state rules require all firefighting choppers to be accompanied by state forestry military helicopter managers, who coordinate water or retardant drops.
By the time those spotters arrived, the powerful Santa Ana winds stoking the fires had made it too dangerous to fly, the AP said.
Another problem that arose was the availability of military C-130 planes that have been outfitted to be able to dump water or chemical fire suppressant over fires. The planes can drop 3,000 gallons of liquid onto the fire.
The planes were being requested as early as Monday, a spokeswoman for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told FOXNews.com, but due to an equipment problem, none were available until Wednesday.
An top military official told the AP Friday that he would push to fix the problem.
The problem was that the California National Guard planes did not have the proper equipment to douse the fires, something that the Air Force has been promising to change for years, Rohrabacher spokeswoman Tara Setmayer said.
Only Wednesday were five C-130s brought in from other regions of the country — six now are in service — including two from as far away as North Carolina.
"The weight of bureaucracy kept these planes from flying, not the heavy winds," Rohrabacher told The Associated Press. "When you look at what's happened, it's disgusting, inexcusable foot-dragging that's put tens of thousands of people in danger."
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who heads U.S. Northern Command, said efforts to outfit the planes with new tanks must be accelerated. He said he is working with the Air Force so that the new tanks can be in place by early fall of 2008, before the next fire season begins.
"Hopefully, because of what we've learned, we will be able to move it along more rapidly," Renuart said, otherwise defending the military operation that descended over California.
Rohrabacher and other members of California's congressional delegation are demanding answers about aircraft deployment. And some fire officials have grumbled that a quicker deployment of aircraft could have helped corral many of the wildfires that quickly flared out of control and have so far burned 500,000 acres from Malibu to the Mexican border.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials have defended the state's response, saying the intense winds prevented a more timely air attack.
"Anyone that is complaining about the planes just wants to complain," Schwarzenegger replied angrily to a question Wednesday. "The fact is that we could have all the planes in the world here — we have 90 aircraft here and six that we got especially from the federal government — and they can't fly because of the wind."
Indeed, winds reaching 100 mph helped drive the flames and made it exceedingly dangerous to fly. Still, four state helicopters and two from the Navy were able to take off Monday while nearly two dozen others stayed grounded.
Thomas Eversole, executive director of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, a Virginia-based nonprofit that serves as a liaison between helicopter contractors and federal agencies, said valuable time was lost.
"The basis for the initial attack helicopters is to get there when the fire is still small enough that you can contain it," Eversole said. "If you don't get there in time, you quickly run the risk of these fires getting out of control."
The first of the 15 or so fires started around midnight Saturday. By Sunday afternoon, fires were raging in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange counties.
At the request of firefighters on the ground, at 4 p.m. Sunday the state Office of Emergency Services asked the National Guard to supply four helicopters. Under state rules, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection "spotter" must accompany each military and National Guard helicopter to coordinate water drops.
The spotters have 24 hours to report for duty, and it took nearly all that time for them and the National Guard crews to assemble. By the time they were ready to go, the winds had made it unsafe to fly.
The helicopters finally got off the ground Tuesday.
Mike Padilla, aviation chief for the forestry department, acknowledged the Guard's helicopters were ready to fly before the spotters arrived. He said state officials were surprised.
"Typically we're waiting for them to get crews," Padilla said.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, state officials rejected the notion they were ill-prepared, noting that more than 20 helicopters and airplanes were stockpiled in Southern California ahead of the wildfires because of the danger of flames erupting.
But high winds after the fires began meant "there was very little opportunity" to fly, said the forestry department's director, Ruben Grijalva.
"This is not a resource shortage on those days, this is a weather-condition problem," he said.
But Bilbray said state officials told him something different on Tuesday night, the AP said. Bilbray, who represents parts of San Diego, and other lawmakers were informed that 19 Navy and Marine helicopters were ready to fly, some as early as Sunday, but didn't take off because there were no state fire spotters to accompany the crews, said Bilbray's spokesman, Kurt Bardella.
Alarmed, Bilbray quickly helped broker an agreement to waive the spotter requirement, allowing flights to begin Wednesday.
"We told them, 'You don't want the public to be asking why these units weren't flying while we had houses burning,"' Bilbray told the AP.
But according to numbers from Issa's office, it appears that the number affected by the Cal-Fire helicopter policy was only eight Marine helicopters, fewer than the 19 total military helicopters available.
By the time the helicopters got airborne, the area burned had quadrupled to more than 390 square miles, and the number of homes destroyed jumped from 34 to more than 700.
Criticism from Bilbray and other lawmakers on the call helped lead Grijalva on Wednesday to abandon the state's long-standing policy to have a spotter aboard each aircraft and instead let one spotter orchestrate drops for a squadron of three helicopters.
"I directed them to do whatever was necessary to get those other military assets into operation," Grijalva said.
He said he could not explain why more spotters were not deployed before the flames spread to ensure that every aircraft ready to fly could take off.
Padilla said state spotters do training exercises with the Navy and National Guard and are used to working with them on fires. That's not the case with the Marines, so when helicopters from that branch were made available, the state was caught off guard and had no spotters available.
Regardless, he said, safety — not availability of spotters — was the overriding concern in determining when to allow aircraft into the skies.
Padilla said he didn't want the Marines to participate because they "would have been a distraction" since they weren't trained.
"It's no different from me walking into Baghdad and saying, 'I'm ready to fight the bad guys,"' he said. "They would no more want me in their arenas, not being trained, prepared and equipped, than I would want them if they were not trained, prepared and equipped."
The C-130 saga is a much different story.
More than a decade ago, Congress ordered replacement of the aging removable tanks for the military planes because of safety concerns and worries that they wouldn't fit with new-model aircraft. California's firefighting C-130 unit is one of four the Pentagon has positioned across the country to respond to fire disasters.
New tanks were designed, but they failed to fit into the latest C-130s. Designers were ordered back to the drawing board. Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly said Congress was assured the new tanks would be ready by 2003.
Four years later, the U.S. Forest Service and Air Force have yet to approve the revised design. Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Paula Kurtz said "technical and design difficulties" have delayed the program.
Rohrabacher and Gallegly are angered by the delay, which has left no C-130s capable of fighting fires on the West Coast. The last of the older-model C-130s with an original tank was retired by the California National Guard last year.
"It's an absolute tragedy, an unacceptable tragedy," Gallegly told the AP.
The situation meant that rather than deploying C-130s from inside the state, Schwarzenegger was forced to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to call in the six remaining older C-130s from other states as far away as North Carolina.
None of them began fighting the fires until Wednesday afternoon.
In the meantime, the state relied mostly on smaller retardant tankers that carry about a third of the C-130's 3,000-gallon capacity.
Gallegly said such firepower was sorely needed earlier.
"I have actually flown in one and pressed the button," he said. "I know what they can do."
FOXNews.com's Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.