Contract in works for fed air tanker base

The U.S. Forest Service is close to re-establishing a full-time federal air tanker base at the Santa Maria Airport during fire season, but the details need to be fine-tuned, county officials said Tuesday.

The movement came at a meeting Tuesday — attended by representatives from the offices of Reps. Elton Gallegly and Lois Capps, Los Padres National Forest Supervisor Peggy Hernandez, and members of the Fire Chiefs Association of Santa Barbara County — to hammer out details of what the fire chiefs are looking for in an air tanker base.

“They’re still working on the contract, but everything’s looking good,” Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Michael Dyer said after the meeting. “I can’t tell you that it’s done, but it’s almost done.”

The fire chiefs want an air tanker base manager on duty in Santa Maria full-time during the fire season. Additionally, they want a contractor to be ready and available to provide retardant. The chiefs also want a contract that allows for more flexibility in federal response to wildland fires outside of fire season, which changes timewise based on scientific data such as fuel load and moisture content.

Tuesday’s meeting was the latest development in a continuing push to re-establish the full-time Forest Service air tanker base since it was downgraded in March 2009.  The base was located at Santa Barbara Airport from 1958 to 2007, when it was relocated to the Santa Maria Airport. It operated as a full-service initial attack and extended-attack base until it was downgraded to call-when-needed status by the Los Padres National Forest for efficiency reasons.

Area fire chiefs have argued vehemently, however, that the full-service base is critical, and have garnered support from numerous elected officials. Dyer said that support made the difference.

In a letter to Forest Service Fire Chief Tom Tidwell dated Sept. 20, for example, the County Board of Supervisors charged that the decision to downgrade the status threatens the ability to respond quickly to fires in a county where some of the nation’s “largest and most destructive wildland fires have occurred.”

The board asked Tidwell to restore the base to “its original status of ‘full-service.’”

Capps and her staff also have met with Forest Service staff and local fire officials numerous times on the issue.  On Tuesday, Capps’ press secretary, Ashley Schapitl, said the 24th District congresswoman, a Democrat, was “pleased” by the positive meeting.  “She (Capps) is confident that the details of an agreement will be put to paper in the coming weeks that will address the concerns of local fire chiefs and ensure the Santa Maria Air Tanker base will be adequately staffed and equipped to respond to wildfires,” Schapitl said.

Hernandez did not return calls for comment.

Dyer said that the Forest Service is so big that it’s hard for Tidwell to keep a finger on everything.  “I think the Forest Service overall just needs to remember they’re not operating in Montana or Wyoming,” Dyer said. “We have high-dollar urban communities built adjacent to the forest in Southern California. This is unlike any interface in the world.”

And, he said, the problems facing aviation resources for firefighting are a “big picture issue.”  “They’re very expensive, but collaboratively we need to look at California and make sure we have adequate coverage,” he said.

By Marga K. Cooley / Associate Editor / Santa Maria Times

Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2011

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