E&E News: Congress OKs long-awaited transfer of 7 firefighting planes to California

By Camille Von Kaenel

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is one significant step closer to getting seven military transport planes from the Coast Guard to help fight wildfires after Congress passed legislation today to speed up the transfer.

The National Defense Reauthorization Act that the Senate passed Wednesday evening and the House passed today contains language to expedite the transfer of seven C-130 aircraft from the Coast Guard to Cal Fire.

The transfer had been delayed for nearly five years and became a priority for California’s firefighting agency, which is facing bigger fires because of climate change. Under an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Joe Biden must still sign, the first of the seven aircraft could be ready in time for the 2024 fire year.

“As we prepare to face more extreme weather events in the future, our defense spending must include critical investments in domestic priorities — these amendments make sure we’re doing just that,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said in a release.

C-130s are military transport aircraft whose uses include search and rescue, medical evacuation and troop transportation. They can deliver over three times more water than the S-2T airtankers currently used by Cal Fire, according to Matt Dias, the president and CEO of the industry group California Forestry Association.

The 2019 defense bill set the transfer to California in motion. But the Air Force, which was tasked with retrofitting the aircraft, fell behind schedule. Officials blamed contracting issues and the Covid-19 pandemic. The new legislation ends federal involvement and gets the state involved directly.

The aircraft must still be prepared for firefighting duty. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has set aside funding in the state budget to finish the modifications.

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