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Defense bill bolsters Forest Service's firefighting air fleet

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HC-130H air tanker. (Source: US Coast Guard) HC-130H air tanker. (Source: US Coast Guard)
C-23B Sherpa. (Source: Wikipedia) C-23B Sherpa. (Source: Wikipedia)
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WASHINGTON (CBS5) -

While the comprehensive defense bill approved by the Senate on Thursday night took big steps toward cracking down on sexual assault in the military, it is also providing a huge boost to the U.S. Forest Service's efforts to battle wildfires.

Language included in the bill from Sens. John McCain, R-AZ, and Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, will transfer 22 military aircraft to the Forest Service to help battle major wildfires.

The senators represent two states hard hit by wildfires. Arizona lost 19 Hotshot firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, and California has been hit hard by wildfires, including the Pfeiffer Fire burning today near Big Sur.

Seven surplus HC-130H Hercules large air tankers (LAT) that can carry 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water or fire retardant each will be transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard, according to a joint news release from McCain and Feinstein.

And 15 C-23B Sherpa aircraft will be used as smokejumper and cargo transports.

The transfer of the HC-130H planes nearly doubles the number of LATs currently operated by the Forest Service.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in August showed that the number of LATs had dropped from 44 in 2003 to eight in 2013.

The tanker capacity of the HC-130H is 3,000 to 4,000 gallons per aircraft and each aircraft will be structurally reinforced by the U.S. Air Force to extend their operational lifetime to about 10 years, according to the Forest Service.

"This is a real step forward in replenishing the Forest Service's dwindling air tanker fleet, which is critically important to fighting wildfires," McCain said in the release.

"This year's wildfire season burned millions of acres across the West and brought tragedy to Arizona with the loss of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in the Yarnell Hill Fire," he said.

"Wildfire suppression aircraft are vital to protecting human life and property. Congress must do more to restore the Forest Service air tanker fleet, but this transfer will boost their ability to fight wildfires."

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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