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Hot Scam? Firefighting Helicopter Drops Are a Political Show

When Rep. Duncan Hunter sidestepped the chain of command to get firefighting planes for California, earlier this month he was matter-of-fact: "California was on fire, I got 'em the planes. That's my job." But then there's the matter of this fact: firefighters say they're often pressured to press planes into service even when they won't do any good on major fires — they call the political air shows, "CNN drops."

Precisely because they look good on TV, these aerial aquatic shows are a highly visible way for politicians to look like they're pulling out all the stops to keep constituents safe, even when it's not necessary or useful. The Oregon fire aviation chief says, "A lot of people do a lot of things for publicity and for politics that don't need to be done."

The sentiment is nice, but it's driving up the cost of fighting fires significantly. To see how significantly,


Last year the Forest Service spent $296 on aerial firefighting compared with $171 million in 2004. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: officials use the water show to show they're doing something, and homeowners don't think enough is being done without it. A retired Forest Service commander says, "If there's a fire and there's not an air tanker circling in California, people go, 'Oh my God, we're defenseless,' when in fact we're probably not,"

While aircraft do have a purpose if they're employed early enough to retard the flames until the ground crew arrives, one the inferno is raging en fuego, "aviation doesn't put out a fire." The ground crew does. Besides the cost, sending crews into inappropriate fires is unsafe.

If "dropping 150 gallons at a few hundred feet on a fire is literally a drop in the bucket," shouldn't we can the expectation of seeing them and let firefighters make the call?


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