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Paul Wellman

Air Base Anxiety

Fire Chiefs Nervous About New Air Tanker Contract


In the Jesusita Fire aftermath, fire chiefs throughout Santa Barbara County remain concerned that the Forest Service’s decision to change its air tanker service contract at the Santa Maria Airport could compromise the aerial response to blazes that erupt near populated areas.

Additionally, the chiefs remain upset the Forest Service decided to announce the contract change without consulting with them. “By the time we heard about it, it was a done deal,” said Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace. In March, the Forest Service decided to downgrade its contract with Jim Kunkle, who provided refueling and retardant reloading services at the Santa Maria Airport, from “full service” to “call when needed” as part of a cost-saving strategy. The plan aimed to reduce the number of California’s Forest Service air bases from nine to five while remaining 34-minutes away from any place throughout the state’s federal forests. Chiefs heard of the change only in April.

Under a full-service contract, Kunkle and his subcontractors are required to load air tankers with fuel and retardant in three minutes. Under the call-when-needed language, Kunkle has four hours to get ready. “From a firefighting perspective, there’s a big difference between three minutes and four hours,” said Santa Maria Fire Chief Frank Ortiz. “But when you’re talking about populated areas, the difference is huge.” Air tankers alone can’t put out fires, explained Andy DiMizio, City of Santa Barbara interim fire chief. But by using the retardant to paint a fire into a box, it can be slowed enough to give ground crews the upper hand. “When we lose that resource to buy us time, we lose a lot of options,” DiMizio cautioned.

Rep. Lois Capps was not notified of the proposed contract change until the county fire chiefs complained to her about it. In response, Forest Service officials arranged a meeting with the county fire chiefs on April 24. This exchange quieted some of the chiefs’ concerns. “It’s not as bad as we initially thought it would be,” explained Montecito Fire’s Wallace. “But it’s not good either. It’s just not bad enough that we need to scream about it.”

Since then, Capps-who remains ambivalent about the merits of the change-has sought to delay the new contract’s implementation to give the fire chiefs more time to air their concerns, and the Forest Service more time to respond. The new contract was supposed to be signed May 15. Now the Forest Service has agreed to delay the signing until Capps can be briefed. As of this writing, no meeting has been scheduled between Capps and the Forest Service.

For 48 years, the Forest Service refueled and reloaded its fixed-wing air tankers at Santa Barbara Airport. By 2006, the Forest Service concluded it was too small, too fogged in, too cluttered with other planes. With the active engagement and support of Santa Barbara’s Association of Fire Chiefs, the Forest Service moved its refueling and loading operations to Santa Maria.

There’s no realistic difference between the two contracts other than we have two people sitting there doing nothing when there’s no fire,” explained Forest Service rep Ed Hollenshead.

By any statistical reckoning, it would appear Santa Maria has been a success, setting national records for quantities of retardant pumped in the two years it’s been operating. But in that time, Santa Barbara experienced the Zaca, Gap, and Tea fires. Its fields were used to help fight last summer’s Big Sur inferno. But even before the Santa Maria base ever opened and these historic infernos consumed 650,000 acres-one third of the Los Padres Forest-the Forest Service had already concluded that it did not make economic sense to maintain a permanent loading and refueling base in Santa Barbara County. Based on 10-year projections, the Forest Service concluded it was fiscally prudent to operate Santa Maria on a strictly as-needed basis. “There’s no realistic difference between the two contracts other than we have two people sitting there doing nothing when there’s no fire,” explained Forest Service rep Ed Hollenshead.

The Forest Service maintains more centrally located bases in Porterville and Fox Field in Lancaster, he said, and in case of wildfire, planes could be dispatched from there. “Regardless of where the planes come from, there will be air tankers over the fire within 34 minutes.” By strategically combining the Forest Service’s air resources with other agencies, Hollenshead said, “I think we’re in pretty good shape. Our action will not create any safety issues or exacerbate risk.” Despite skepticism from county fire chiefs, he stressed that Santa Maria could be functional in four hours. In case of fire threats, he said, the decision to open Santa Maria would be “a slam dunk.” He noted that the Forest Service had recently acquired two new helitankers and an additional crew of Hot Shots exclusively for the Los Padres Forest. Even so, Wallace expressed concern that incident commanders are already under intense pressure to save money, and that the decision of whether to activate Santa Maria would add complication and stress. “We are cost conscious, but we’re not stupid,” responded Hollenshead.

As for the late notice given to the county fire chiefs and Capps, Hollenshead made no excuses. “It was an oversight,” he said. “We dropped the ball.”

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