PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE – Military and civilian officials are weighing whether to make it easier to call in military planes to help fight wildfires, a top general said Wednesday.
Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., head of the U.S. Northern Command, said making specially equipped C-130 cargo aircraft available sooner is under discussion as military and civilian officials get ready for the 2013 wildfire season.
The Defense Department has eight C-130s that can be equipped to drop thousands of gallons of retardant on wildfires.
Under current rules, they can’t be called up unless all the civilian and commercial firefighting aircraft are in use or unavailable.
Last year’s devastating wildfires across the West prompted some civilian officials to question why the C-130s weren’t called in sooner.
Jacoby did not say when a decision might be made.
The military’s firefighting C130s are operated by three National Guard and one reserve unit in Colorado, Wyoming, North Carolina and California.
A C130 operated by the North Carolina Air National Guard crashed while fighting a fire in South Dakota in July, killing four of six crew members.
Jacoby and Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke at a brief news conference at Northern Command’s headquarters at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base.
Fugate was at Northern Command to discuss military-civilian cooperation in domestic crises. Northern Command was established after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to defend U.S. soil and help civilian emergency responders.
Fugate said they reviewed the response to Hurricane Sandy to determine how to prepare for another major disaster. Sandy showed that federal emergency responders can’t wait to learn the full extent of a disaster before they act and must have people, supplies and equipment in place before local officials ask for help, he said.
“You can’t wait till it’s overwhelming,” Fugate said.
Hurricane Sandy was the biggest test yet of a new military command structure that puts a single officer, usually from the National Guard, in charge of both National Guard and active-duty personnel.
Normally, they report to different chains of command – National Guard troops to the governor of their state and active-duty troops to the Defense secretary and the president. During the response to Hurricane Katrina, that division hampered communication and made it difficult to coordinate the response.
Fugate said having “dual-status commanders” in charge of Guard and active-duty personnel in each state improved the response to Hurricane Sandy.