County wants SM air tanker base back on full-time status

Santa Barbara County officials have continued a push to reinstate the federal air tanker base at the Santa Maria Airport to full-time status by writing a letter to the U.S. Forest Service, but 4th District county Supervisor Joni Gray said Monday that there has been no response yet.

The Forest Service air tanker 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 March of 2009, when it was downgraded to call-when-needed status by the Los Padres National Forest to save money.

In a letter to U.S. Forest Service Fire Chief Tom Tidwell dated Sept. 20, the 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 base was operational the week of Sept. 11 because lightning strikes early in the morning of Sept. 10 ignited at least a half-dozen brush fires in the Los Padres National Forest, most of which were quickly contained.

The appeal is the latest in a string of letters that have been sent to state and federal officials since the May 2009 Jesusita Fire, which occurred just months after the downgrade, and which many say escalated because of a lengthy delay in air tanker response.  Eighty homes were destroyed in the conflagration that charred 8,773 acres and cost $19.5 million to suppress. Thirty-two firefighters were hurt battling the fire.

In their latest letter, supervisors charge that the Fire Chiefs Association of Santa Barbara County was assured that the downgrade would not cause a loss in air tanker production capabilities or reduce initial attack capabilities.  Additionally, they say the Forest Service stated that the air tanker base, on a call-when-needed status, would be operational within four hours.  “However, to date, the base has never been opened within this desired four-hour time frame,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the cost of one fire that escapes initial attack … is equal to many times the salary of the one eliminated base manager position,” the letter continues.

The county’s Deputy Fire Chief, Chris Hahn, said Monday that the Forest Service is still in the phase of figuring out what’s going to be done.  “As of right now, there’s nothing new that’s happening,” he said.

 In an agenda letter to supervisors last month, county Fire Chief Michael Dyer said that strategically, a full-service air tanker base in Santa Maria is critical to the Forest Service, Cal Fire, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and local city fire departments and districts.

Before it was downgraded, the air tanker base provided initial attack service for all wildland fires in the county as well as Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties.

The letter states that the Forest Service justifies the downgrade by stating that no air tankers were pre-positioned at the air tanker base, but argues that that does not diminish the base’s ability to meet initial attack requirements.  “Critical retardant drops are lost when air tankers must reload at a tanker base farther away than Santa Maria, often resulting in two hours more flight time,” the letter states.

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

Posted: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 12:15 am