Santa Maria air tanker base gets heavy use again

The air tanker base that was down-graded earlier this year from a full-time base to a call when needed base is again seeing very heavy use as air tankers reload there while working on the La Brea fire 24 miles east of the base. In May during the Jesusita fire the Santa Maria air tanker base set a new national record for the most fire retardant pumped in a single day–158,000 gallons, according to an article in the Santa Barbara Independent by Nick Welsh.

On Saturday, the first day of the La Brea fire, eight air tankers worked the fire. For Tuesday, ten air tankers have been requested, including four heavies, four S-2s, and one single engine air tanker. And, the 7,200-gallon Martin Mars will arrive in the area at noon today to work the fire and will be refilling its tanks by scooping water from Cachuma reservoir which is 24 miles south of the fire.

Five type 1 helicopters (three Aircranes, one S-61, and one Vertol 107) and at least four type 2 helicopters (all Bell 212s) are expected to be working the fire today.

HERE is a link to a video at KSBY about the air tanker base and the La Brea fire.

Decker fire, 50 years ago today

On August 8, 1959 the El Cariso Hot Shots experienced the first of two fire tragedies the crew would be involved in. The fire was the Decker Fire located in the foothills above Lake Elsinore, California. Seven people were overrun by fire and six lost their lives. Three were members of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew.

In 1966 12 members of the crew were killed when they were entrapped on the Loop Fire.

Decker Fire graphicFor more info:

Are we running out of air tankers?

The U. S. Forest Service has said that by 2012 the existing 19 large air tankers currently approved for use by the federal agencies will be either too expensive to maintain or no longer airworthy. The average age of the large air tankers is 50 years old.

Discussions about this have been going on since at least 2005 when Congress directed the USFS to come up with a strategic plan for procuring and managing aircraft for fighting wildfires. But that plan has never seen the light of day.

The new Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Jay Jensen said the agency is working on the plan and it might be released by the end of the year. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) suggests that the plan should be released by September 30 so that it can be considered when preparing the next fiscal year’s budget.

According to a September 2, 1987 story in the New York Times, during the huge lightning bust in northern California when firefighters were battling hundreds of fires that year, they were assisted by 48 air tankers. In 2002 there were 44. Now we are down to 19, and according to the USFS that number could drop to zero in three years, unless some out-of-the-box decision making occurs.

Inspector General’s report

A report by the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General assumes the replacement air tankers will have to be purchased, “due to the lack of manufacturers with this type of aircraft willing to lease them at a reasonable rate”. The USFS does actually rent, or lease, their lead planes and some other aircraft, but renting or purchasing air tankers would be a paradigm shift away from the current business plan of exclusive use contracts for the privately owned 50-year old air tanker fleet.

$2.5 billion for new air tankers

The Forest Service has requested $2.5 billion to purchase a fleet of air tankers. The Inspector General’s report said the USFS needs to strengthen its justification for acquiring them. In addition, the report said they should develop a project team to oversee acquisition. The Forest Service replied they would only establish a project team after Congress approves the budget request for the aircraft, while the Inspector General said it should be established immediately.

Some thoughts-

Geeze. If someone is trying to give you $2.5 billion for a new fleet of air tankers, shouldn’t you accept their suggestions? And, what about finishing and releasing that replacement plan that was due in 2005?

The project team for replacing air tankers should have been established in 2002.

What is going on here? Arrogance? Laziness? A lack of accountability? Thinking that if we ignore the problem of aging air tankers it will go away? Yes, the air tankers may go away, but what will replace them?

And is anyone considering a purpose-built large air tanker that could carry at least 3,000 gallons of retardant that could maneuver in and out of canyons? That could take years to design and build. It’s too bad no one saw this problem coming, say, in 2002 when two very old air tankers, a C-130 and a PB4Y, broke apart in mid-air and killed five people.

If smart, proactive, decisive action had occurred then, by 2012 we would have had a shiny new fleet of safe, effective, purpose-built air tankers. But the Forest Service is STILL dragging their feet, seven years later. Maybe “by the end of this year” they will finish a replacement plan that was due in 2005? Can’t we do better than that?

I used to tell my firefighters, when urging them to be fire-ready at all times, “What if there was a fire–right now? Are you ready?” Will the United States be ready for a fire in 2012?

Colorado: Barbecue grill in pickup may have started fire

Apparently two fires on Wednesday along highway 82 in Snowmass Canyon, Colorado were started from burning embers blowing out of a barbecue grill in the back of a pickup traveling upvalley on the highway. A trucker reported that he saw a blue Ford pickup with a smoking grill in the back. Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Gibson is thinking the embers from the grill started the fires. 

Gibson was quoted as saying:

Don’t put a burning barbecue grill in the back of a pickup truck and drive up the highway.

That’s always good advice.

As long as we have idiots like that pickup truck driver, there will always be a need for fire departments. And speaking of idiots, this is the 4th time we have assigned the tag “idiot”  on Wildfire Today.



Thanks Dick

Ashland, Oregon fire, 1959

It was 50 years ago, Saturday, that two fires threatened Ashland, Oregon. Here is the beginning of an article about the fires, from the Mail Tribune:

It was 105 degrees on Aug. 8, 1959, when two fires broke out in the dry grass above the railroad tracks by Jackson Hot Springs, near Highway 99 and South Valley View Road.

The fires grew quickly, driven by steady winds, and began climbing through the Ashland Mine Road area toward Wrights Creek canyon, raising a giant plume of smoke and ash.

By nightfall, the flames had traveled five miles to the crest of the Ashland watershed, and thousands of awed townsfolk watched as the flames consumed big pines and firs that exploded in the dark. Many feared the flames would creep into town.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival went on with its production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” despite the flames on nearby hills, helping the Ashland Fire Department keep traffic off the streets.

“It was a terrible conflagration,” said Bill Patton, the festival’s retired executive director. “The trees exploded like Roman candles in the intense heat. The wind was blowing. It was amazing. We’d turn and look at the audience and here were a thousand faces, cherry red, reflecting the flames.”

The actors playing Antony and Cleopatra were visiting Ashland, staying in the motor court then located in Lithia Park, recalled Patton’s wife, Shirley. “When they left for the theater, they took their precious things with them. But the fire stopped at the crest.”

The rest of the article is HERE.

Steven Pyne: evacuations not always necessary

The prolific author of books about wildland fire, Steven Pyne, has been quoted in a Canadian publication as being an advocate for homeowners, in some cases, not evacuating in front of a fire, but staying, and putting out the small embers after the fire front passes. Sometimes this is called “prepare, stay and defend, or leave early”.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

VICTORIA, B.C. — A U.S. fire-fighting expert says evacuating communities to escape forest fires is not always the right thing to do.

Fire historian Stephen Pyne says it’s rare that communities are engulfed in a “tsunami of fire.”

More often, homes are destroyed by fires started from small burning embers thrown out from the fire front, Pyne said in an interview. They could be extinguished with little effort.

“After the front has passed, or the main surge, you could go out with a squirt gun and a whisk broom,” said Pyne.

He pointed to a wildfire that destroyed a number of homes an evacuated neighbourhood in Los Alamos, NM, nine years ago.

Afterward, officials realized most were the result of burning embers, said Pyne, who teaches at Arizona State University.

“Are these mass evacuations the right approach?” he asked. “Or is that what people are doing because they’re afraid of TV or lawsuits, who knows what?”