The high-flying heroes of last year's fire season won't be under local lease this year --money's so scarce that authorities will only call for the Super Scooper "when needed."
Hundreds of homes in San Diego were lost to the 2007 Firestorm. Last year, the county leased two SuperScoopers and a command aircraft for a 90-day period at the cost of about $3 million. Only $250,000 is still available from that program.
"So the thought was to set that aside," San Diego Fire-Rescue DepartmentChief Tracy Jarman said. "If we see a wind event starting to materialize, to see if we could get some 'call if needed' aircraft to be available to the region. There's a certain amount of risk to that, because we don't know if the aircraft would be available."
Which is especially since the Super Scoopers are based in Canada and may already be spoken for by other agencies or jurisdictions.
The next fallback would be Class 1 or heavy-lift helicopters, but they're costly -- nearly $7,000 an hour for flight time, which is billed for the trip to San Diego County as well. At a high-use rate of 10,000 a day, the county's reserve fund could be burned through within a week.
County supervisors say what they call a "tool box approach" to aerial firefighting equipment in a budget crunch is the only cost-effective way to go and that there is flexibility and standby capabilities during red-flag warnings, even after major fires erupt.
"Yes, there is a risk in this," said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "It's a year-round season here. But there's a risk also in just having available aircraft for three months, because we know here in San Diego County, we have year-round fire risks."
This wouldn't be an issue if the county's voters had approved Prop A last November. It called for a $50 parcel tax to raise upward of $50 million a year to build a regional firefighting arsenal. The ballot measure was just short of the two-thirds majority needed.