California rejects top Russian firefighting plane

The Unites States has rejected Russia's offer of an Ilyushin 76 firefighting plane, which experts say is first rate at dealing with fires of the sort now tearing through southern California.

Republican congress member Dana Rohrabacher says he's been trying to get the Ilyushins to the U.S. for years, and says Californians are now paying the price for not having them.

“If those people I talked had been honest and worked with me to open up the system, we probably would have been able to save hundreds if not thousands of homes in California,” he said.

“The real purpose is just protecting special interests within society from competition,” Mr Rohrabacher said.

It's not the first time Moscow's offer of assistance has been turned down.

Each year since 1995, Russia has offered the U.S. Forest Service the use of an Ilyushin – and each time the offer has been turned down.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Forest Service were not available for comment.

The Ilyushin 76 is a plane used for firefighting operations in many countries. According to experts, the aircraft can do in days or hours what other firefighting planes take weeks to achieve.

However, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said it was not the lack of rescue aircraft that was causing the problems, but the weather.

Yet critics have said the Governor's excuse is not good enough.

“In some fires, the winds will be too strong for planes to be used. In others, they won't be. What we are really talking about is whether there's an option available,” Rohrabacher said.

As the U.S. waits for the Sanda Ana winds to subside, the fires continue to wreak havoc in the region.

At least six people have died so far. More than 40 others have been injured, including several firefighters.

U.S. President Bush has declared the fires a “major disaster” and has increased federal aid to help the region.

The flames have charred an area the size of New York City, damaged crops and destroyed town houses and businesses.

Nearly a million people have been forced out of their homes in what has become the largest evacuation in California's history.