Being from opposing parties as well as opposite ends of the political spectrum, it is not surprising that Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John McCain don't agree on many issues. But when they do agree on one, it should warrant our close attention.
Such is the case when the pair co-sponsored language -- inserted into a defense bill by Feinstein -- that will double the size of the U.S. Forest Service fleet of large air tankers used to help fight wildfires.
It is an upgrade that is desperately needed. The Government Accountability Office reports that the federal air tanker fleet that had once topped 40 planes had dwindled to eight.
Those of us who live in the West know that the nation's wildfires have not waned in a like manner. We know firsthand the devastation that can be caused by wildfires and know what tremendous benefit air tankers bring to firefighting, especially in rugged terrain.
Just last week the 500-acre wildfire in Big Sur destroyed more than a dozen homes, but it was tiny compared to the 250,000-acre Rim Fire that scorched parts of Yosemite National Park for two months, leaving more than $50 million in damage.
In the East Bay, we saw a fire that engulfed the south side of Mount Diablo as it burned more than 3,000 acres and cost more than $5.3 million to extinguish. Air tankers were used in fighting that blaze, and we can only image how much more devastating it would have been without them.
But property damage and equipment costs are trivial compared to the death of the 19 members of an elite firefighting crew last June near Prescott, Ariz.
It is important to be clear that this bill is not some government spending boondoggle. In fact, we believe it is smart fiscal policy.
Instead of purchasing new aircraft, the bill merely transfers seven HC-130H Hercules U.S. Coast Guard aircraft that have been deemed surplus to the Forest Service. The transfer effectively doubles the size of the air tanker fleet virtually overnight.
That should be of significant help to the service. Feinstein says the planes can carry a combined 21,000 gallons of water or fire retardant.
In addition, the transfer includes 15 smaller C23-B Sherpa aircraft, which are essential for transporting cargo and are used to deploy the legendary smoke jumpers, who parachute into difficult fire areas.
While this bill is smart policy, it clearly is not enough. We believe that Congress must do more to bolster federal firefighting efforts throughout the country, especially in the West. But we applaud this first step.