California Department of Forestry officials recently acknowledged that a $7 million decrease in Schwarzenegger's original budget for the agency, which he will revise next month, would have forced it to either ground a few of the fast-attack tankers in its 23-plane fleet, mothball some fire engines, or both.
"We want the full fleet (out there)," Schwarzenegger said at a Capitol news conference. "We want to protect the people from fires."
Schwarzenegger's comments come in the week of recent reports by the Oakland Tribune a sister publication of this paper detailing the air tanker woes. The governor also said he is "concerned" about developments with the remainder of the aging fleet of big federal air tankers that can fly over populated areas. It may be grounded in the wake of yet another crash last week during a training mission.
"Yes, I am concerned," he said. "We want to make sure it can operate as efficiently as possible."
Schwarzenegger, who has been briefed by members of Congress on Russia's offer to provide huge firefighting jet aircraft, said he is open to looking at the planes as U.S. tools.
Though there are numerous hurdles, the Republican governor made the remarks even as the Bush administration is reviewing its limited aerial firefighting options for the summer.
Many California fire officials consider the assistance of big federal air tankers essential in battling the state's sometimes deadly wildfires.
A proponent of the Russian plane's use in California, Tom Robinson of Global Emergency Response, a multi-national disaster mitigation organization, said "this is the best opening we've had" and that he intends to immediately contact Schwarzenegger.
Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher held a news conference over the weekend in his Huntington Beach district to promote the Ilyushin-76 "Waterbombers."
"The Russian jet has four times the capacity of the biggest U.S. air tankers and would provide much-needed assistance to California's fire departments," he said.
In its latest version, the jet carries 15,000 gallons, about five times the payload of the biggest military-surplus planes provided by a handful of small private firms to the U.S. Forest Service.
An Oregon-based company, Evergreen International Aviation, may provide another option to the United States. It is developing a Boeing 747 tanker that would carry 24,000 gallons.
Asked to respond to the governor's vow to fully field the state's air tankers and fire engines this summer, the California Department of Forestry deferred comment to Schwarzenegger's Finance Department.
Spokesman H.D. Palmer said that though he would not disclose details of the governor's May budget revision, the two options are to either close CDF's operational budget gap by allocating another $7 million or to force the agency to make cuts in other areas.
But Palmer said, either way, CDF will carry out Schwarzenegger's mandate.
Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.