After a lengthy and destructive wildfire season in California, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., inserted language into a defense bill that will double the size of the U.S. Forest Service fleet of large air tankers.
Feinstein said that the amendment, which she cosponsored with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would transfer seven surplus HC-130H Hercules aircraft from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service. The planes can carry a combined 21,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, she said.
"This transfer is a critical step to help address our ability to defend forests and communities from the threat of wildfires," Feinstein said in a statement.
Feinstein and McCain included the language into the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate approved the bill late Thursday on a vote of 84-15.
The transfer will also include 15 smaller C23-B Sherpa aircraft to transport cargo and smokejumpers.
The announcement comes the same week as firefighters were working to contain a 500-acre wildfire in California's Big Sur south of San Francisco. The blaze destroyed more than a dozen homes, including the local fire chief's.
The Big Sur fire caps off a destructive year in California. The 250,000-acre Rim Fire scorched parts of Yosemite National Park between August and October, leaving more than $50 million in damage. Last week, President Barack Obama approved federal disaster assistance for the third-largest fire in California history, after Gov. Jerry Brown appealed a Federal Emergency Management Agency decision to deny the aid.
Arizona's wildfire losses weren't just economic: In June, 19 members of an elite firefighting crew died in the Yarnell Hill blaze south of Prescott.
"Wildfire suppression aircraft are vital to protecting human life and property," McCain said.
McCain said while his effort with Feinstein would help boost the Forest Service's firefighting capabilities, Congress needed to do more.
The senators noted that a Government Accountability Office report in August found that the agency's large air tanker fleet had dropped to eight planes in 2013, from 44 a decade earlier.
PHOTO:Inmate firefighters walked along Highway 120 during the Rim Fire in August. AP/Jae C. Hong