Santa Maria air tanker base to reopen

Santa Maria air tanker base
Fire retardant tanks at Santa Maria air tanker base. Photo: Central Coast Jet Center

Since the staffing at the Santa Maria air tanker base 55 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California was eliminated on March 19, 2009, which downgraded the staff to call when needed, several fire chiefs in the area have been campaigning to reinstate the full time positions at the base. At that time two key tanker base positions — fixed-wing base manager and assistant fixed-wing base manager — were eliminated as part of a reorganization of the Los Padres National Forest staff.

Today Peggy Hernandez, the Forest Supervisor announced that the appropriate staff will be on hand at Santa Maria from October 21 through November 15 of this year, and during next year’s declared fire season, to reload air tankers if there is a fire in the area.

The call when needed status meant that if there was a nearby fire on which air tankers were used, the aircraft had to fly to Paso Robles to reload with fire retardant, which is 58 miles north of Santa Maria. Without a full time staff, it can take several hours or perhaps much longer to round up personnel qualified and available to run the base at Santa Maria, and then the mechanical systems have to be put back into service. [Corrected to say Paso Robles instead of Porterville for the alternate base.]

Summerland-Carpenteria Fire Chief Michael Mingee, who serves as President of the Association of Santa Barbara Fire Chiefs, welcomed the announcement.

“This has been a great example of government agencies at all levels working in cooperation for the betterment of public safety,” Chief Mingee said.

Wildfire Today has covered this issue previously:


Fire Chiefs pressure USFS to reopen Santa Maria air tanker base

Since the Santa Maria air tanker base northwest of Santa Barbara was downgraded by the Los Padres National Forest on March 19, 2009 from a full-time to a Call When Needed base, some fire chiefs in the area have been lobbying the U. S. Forest Service to reverse that decision. We have written about this issue several times, but it is in the news again, as even more fire chiefs have gotten involved. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Barbara Independent:

Chiefs Demand Fire Support

Want Full Service Restored at Santa Maria Air Tanker Base

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Just two days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the fire chiefs of Santa Barbara County let loose the opening shot of what’s been a long-simmering campaign to pressure the U.S. Forest Service to restore “full-service” status to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, as opposed to the “call when needed” designation the base has had for the past two years. Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio — accompanied by Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace and Operations Chief Terry McElwee — showed up at Santa Barbara City Hall to ask the council to sign a ceremonial letter expressing their support for the fire chiefs in a battle of political will with the Forest Service. While the chiefs wore the brass, it was former county supervisor — and longtime rancher — Willy Chamberlin who held the floor, urging the councilmembers to hang tough and “not weaken.” Chamberlin introduced himself as a “self-appointed bird dog” when it came to air-tanker readiness, but his remarks to the council were relatively tame compared to comments he made in the hallways outside the council chambers. There, Chamberlin blistered the Forest Service for downgrading the status of the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base in 2009. Not only has the loss of a full-service base cost the federal government money, he said, it put county residents at greater peril in the face of wildland fires. Had the tanker base remained at full service, Chamberlin insisted that the Jesusita Fire of 2009 — which destroyed 80 homes — might well have been contained early on. “I’m not saying it would have stopped that fire,” Chamberlin said, “but it would most definitely have been a very different fire.” The chiefs, standing next to him, nodded in assent.

Thanks go out to Dick

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.

Santa Maria air tanker base sets retardant-pumping record

The air tanker base that the U.S. Forest Service recently downgraded to a part-time “call when needed” base set a new national record last Friday 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.

Wildfire Today covered the issues surrounding the downgrading of the base in an article on May 12, one on May 2, and another one April 10.

Except for reloading three air tankers, the base at Santa Maria, California was not used on the first day of the Jesusita fire after it was discovered that the U.S. Forest Service had not renewed the contract with the supplier of retardant. Since they could not use the closest base, Santa Maria, every time the tankers needed to reload they had to fly an additional 120 miles round trip to  Porterville. This also required that they be refueled more frequently, lengthening their turn-around time.

The USFS usually has a contract in effect at the base from May 15 through November 15 and when the Jesusita fire started on May 6 they hadn’t gotten around to it yet. But even if the standard contract had been in place, it would not have been in effect the day the fire started.  By the second day of the fire a new contract had been negotiated, effective on May 7, leading to the record-setting use of retardant.

Here is a brief excerpt from Mr. Welsh’s article.

Could the Little Baby Jesus Fire have been bottled up the first day with more drops? Who knows.

In hindsight, Santa Maria would have allowed more and quicker drops, and that undeniably helps. But those in the biz also insist that air tankers don’t put out fires. Instead, air tankers give fire crews the cover they need to put them out. Given the steepness and inaccessibility of the terrain where the fire started — and the conspicuous lack of escape routes — no commanders in their right mind would have allowed firefighters on the ground that first day. Besides, they note, Jesusita spread fewer than 100 acres in that time.

Regardless, the Forest Service contract department needs to figure out that fire season is a 365-day-a-year reality out here, and renew its contracts accordingly.

Amy Asman  of the San Luis Obispo, CA NewTime has also written an article about the issue. Here is an excerpt:

…However, Andrew Madsen, public communications specialist for Los Padres National Forest, said [not using Santa Maria on the first day of the fire] didn’t impede the Forest Service’s ability to fight the fire.

“To link the burning fire with the base is Santa Maria is wrong,” Madsen said. “It’s completely inaccurate, and it’s incendiary to people who were victims of the fire.”

The Santa Maria firebase, he said, was “up and running” within the required amount of time, that is, the first 24 hours of the fire. Before that time period ended, the planes carrying fire retardant couldn’t have been used anyway, he explained, because the 100-acre fire was burning in a location inaccessible to on-ground firefighting forces.

“Air support must be used in conjunction with firefighting from the ground,” Madsen said. “Fire retardant drops must be followed immediately by fire fighting from the ground or else they’re moot.”

And after the first 24 hours, Madsen added, the planes still couldn’t be used because of high-speed winds.

“Thirty- to 40 mph winds will ground aircraft every single time,” he said. “Without the winds, that fire wouldn’t have done anything.”

When asked why the Forest Service didn’t have its contract finalized sooner, Madsen said: “Even if we did, it would have been set for [fire season] May 15 to Nov. 15, so we would have had to set up an emergency contract anyway.”

Still, some community members are using the glitch as an example of why the Santa Maria firebase should be restored to full-time status.

“It’s unfortunate what happened, but it validates the need and the ability of the Santa Maria firebase to support an initial fire attack,” Central Coast Jet Center’s Kunkle said.

It is time for the U.S. Forest Service to admit they made mistakes by downgrading the base and by not having the retardant contract in effect before May 15–then they can move on. Until they do, this debate will fester and they will continue to look like fools, having to constantly defend an undefendable position.

Followup on downgrading the Santa Maria tanker base

On May 2 Wildfire Today covered the downgrading of the Santa Maria, California air tanker base from a full service base to a “call when needed” base.  When the Jesusita fire burned into Santa Barbara 4 days later ultimately destroying 78 homes and burning 8,700 acres, using the Santa Maria base instead of Porterville could have saved 120 miles round trip each time the air tankers reloaded.

S2 being reloaded. Photo: Bill Gabbert

Emergency medical personnel refer to the “Golden Hour”, during which it is crucial that seriously injured victims receive a very high level of patient care. It is also crucial that overwhelming force be used during the first four hours, the Golden Four Hours, of the initial attack stage of a wildland fire.  Quick, efficient suppression during the Golden Four Hours can save many acres, many dollars, and in some cases private property, homes, or even lives.

Closing or downgrading air tanker bases, closing fire stations, or laying off firefighters may cost a lot more in the long run, than the short term dollars that may be saved by short-sighted bureaucrats–some of whom have absolutely no personal knowledge or experience in fire suppression. Fire suppression decisions should be made by firefighters.

Southern California has evolved into having a year-round fire season. With the urban interface they have, their resources and tools need to be geared up all year to contain fires by 10 a.m. the next day. It was a good idea in 1910, and it still is today.

The AP has picked up on the story, and has quotes from Gail Kimbell, the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

The head of the U.S. Forest Service said she is reluctant to overturn a policy that caused tanker planes to fly extra distances while fighting a California wildfire because the agency did not yet have a contract in place to use a nearby airport.

The tankers had to fly an additional 120 miles round trip to obtain supplies — delaying response to the fire, which burned 100 homes in Santa Barbara, forced more than 30,000 people to evacuate and torched more than 13 square miles.

Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said the agency will review the specifics of the Santa Barbara blaze, but added that she would not want the agency to have year-round contracts with private companies to help fight wildfires.

“A permanent fire season? I hope we never get to that,” she told The Associated Press.

Setting up agreements to provide retardant and other supplies “is an expense of public money. We want to be mindful before we commit to anything,” Kimbell said.

At the same time, she acknowledged that global warming and other factors have led to longer fire seasons that now stretch well beyond mid-May to November.

“Fire season keeps expanding on both ends,” Kimbell said, adding that the length of the fire season is a key factor as officials set up contracts with private companies and airports to assist the government in what has become a billion-dollar-a-year battle against wildfires.

“We try to be prepared … should events occur, and we use the best data we have, but you’ll never have all the answers,” particularly when most contracts are signed a year in advance, Kimbell said.

Three aircraft were able to resupply once at an airfield in Santa Maria, Calif., 60 miles north of the blaze, but they were later diverted to another airport about 120 miles away after officials realized a supply contract wasn’t in place at the Santa Maria airport. State and federal officials say it’s impossible to know what effect the airport confusion had on efforts to stamp out the Santa Barbara blaze, but said that being able to land at Santa Maria would have saved time.

Planes made multiple trips to Porterville, Calif., last week before the Santa Maria airfield was opened to the aircraft on May 6, cutting the length of resupply missions in half. The Forest Service had not completed a contract, which usually runs from May 15 to Nov. 15, with two service providers at the airport, said spokesman Jason Kirchner.

The 8,700-acre Santa Barbara fire destroyed 78 homes and damaged 22 others, fire officials said. The week-old blaze was 80 percent contained as of Tuesday, with costs totaling more than $12.2 million.

Wildfire news, April 10, 2009

Li’l Smokey doing well

The bear cub that was rescued in a fire in northern California by a CalFire firefighter last July is doing well after being released in the Klamath National Forest.  A radio signal from the bear’s radio collar was detected, showing that he awakened from hibernation and traveled about 4.5 miles from his den. The bear was released on February 6 after being treated for burned paws at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care center.

bear cub
Li’l Smokey, soon after being rescued last summer.

Drought Outlook, April through June

drought outlook

Funeral for Wisconsin pilot will be Monday

The funeral for Heath Van Handel is scheduled for Monday at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran church in Neenah, Wisc.  Mr. Van Handel died when his air attack plane crashed while circling a fire near Cary, Wisconsin on Wednesday.   Donations in honor of Mr. Van Handel may be made payable to the “Heath Van Handel Family Fund”, c/o Trent Marty, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, PO Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921.

The video below includes more information about the crash and an interview with Mr. Van Handel’s wife, Jenny Van Handel.

Texas: 3 deaths and many large fires

Three people died in north Texas fires on Thursday that were pushed by strong winds with very low humidities.  A television station, WFFA, reported that a former reporter for the station and his wife, Matt and Cathy Quinn, were killed when a fire burned through their property in Montague County (map). Cathy Quinn’s son, Chris, was being treated at the Parkland Memorial Hospital burn unit in Dallas and was in fair condition, according to the television station.

A third person was killed in a traffic collision in Wichita County caused by smoke related visibility.

Some of the fires in Texas include:

  • 5,000 acres near Electra close to the Oklahoma border, 2 large commercial buildings burned, 800 residents and a nursing home evacuated
  • 25,000 acres near Stoneburg, 10 to “several dozen” structures burned, depending on the report
  • 35,000 acres near Bowie
  • 20,000 acres near Bellevue, 12 structures burned
  • 4,000 acres east of Archer City, 3 homes burned
  • 3,000 acres in Stephens County, an apartment complex was threatened
  • 1,000 acres near Bangs, 1 home burned

Oklahoma fires

Firefighters battle fires on both sides of the street in Midwest City, OK

In Lincoln County, a firefighter suffered major burns and was being treated at an Oklahoma City hospital after a fire truck was overrun by flames. The firefighter is in stable condition.

The Oklahoma Department of Health reports 34 injuries across the state related to the fires. One severe injury is reported in Stephens County, where a motorist lost vehicular control on a smoke-covered road.

Friday morning firefighters are still working on a fire that has burned 5,000 acres west of Stillwater, about 30 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.

In Midwest City east of Oklahoma City, about 100 homes were damaged by a fire spread by winds that gusted to more than 50 mph.

Arson registry

From the LA Times:

As a federal prosecutor, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) struggled to tie an accused arsonist to a string of fires in the San Bernardino National Forest.

But then authorities stumbled across an old file showing that the man had set fires using the same modus operandi years earlier. Once the accused arsonist was confronted with the evidence, he pleaded guilty.

Today, Schiff uses the story to make the case for legislation that would set up a national system for tracking convicted arsonists, a program similar to the sex offenders registry.

Had such a system been in place when Schiff worked on the arson case — providing the names, addresses, fingerprints and photographs of arsonists and their methods for starting fires — “we may have been able to stop him before he committed several later fires,” the congressman said.

California: Santa Maria air tanker base downgraded

From the Santa Maria Times:

Changes in air-tanker operations at the Santa Maria Public Airport will seriously impair aerial firefighting efforts in the event of a major local wildfire, according to an official at Los Padres National Forest.

Two key tanker base positions — fixed-wing base manager and assistant fixed-wing base manager — were eliminated as part of a March 19 reorganization of Los Padres National Forest staff, according to Joe Duran, San Lucia District wilderness and trail manager, who is also president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 2023,

The former base manager, Sheryl Woods, has been reassigned, he said. The assistant position was vacant.

Additionally, the Santa Maria Air Attack Base has been downgraded from a full-service operation to a standby “call when needed” center.

The cuts were made because of budget concerns, he said.

Duran said he believes initial air attack responses to fires within Los Padres National Forest and other locations will be crippled in the early hours of a reported wildfire.

Without base management on site, the Forest Service will have to get qualified managers to staff the center within 24 hours of an activation call, Duran said.

John Heil, a Forest Service spokesman for the Pacific Southwest Region, said the changes were made for cost effectiveness and more efficiency.

A Cal Fire tanker base in Paso Robles is 15 minutes away by air from Santa Maria, he said, and that facility has been used to fuel aircraft while Santa Maria has been used to load retardant materials. A consolidation of operations at the Paso Robles facility is more ideal, he said.

Santa Maria was never a permanent host to tankers, and the base was set up as “experimental” rather than permanent, he said.

The Santa Maria base will not close, but will be used when it is needed, he added.

During the Zaca Fire in 2007, 1,700 flights took off from the airfield in just two and a half months. At the height of the Zaca Fire, 18 aircraft were at the airport.