Paul Wellman

Of Ashes and Airbases

At the insistence and instigation of Rep. Lois Capps, county fire chiefs met with a group of Forest Service officials last Wednesday to discuss plans to downgrade the federal air tanker service contract at the Santa Maria Airport from full service to “call when needed.” Two fire chiefs-Montecito’s Kevin Wallace and Santa Maria’s Frank Ortiz-heatedly objected that the contract downgrade will lengthen the time needed to deploy air tankers against future fires. More accepting of the change was County Fire Chief Tom Franklin, and Ted Adams, representing the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council. Forest Service firefighters-including the chief of California operations-argued that despite the changes, firefighting planes would be deployed within four hours. The current contract calls for no more than three minutes. Because of budget constraints, the Forest Service is consolidating the air bases out of which it provides firefighting support. Despite this consolidation, Forest Service officials insisted the air tankers will be no more than 34 minutes’ flying distance from any site in the forest. Capps was upset to learn in April about a contract change enacted in March; she convened the meeting at her Santa Barbara offices to allow fire chiefs to air their concerns. Last week’s meeting did little to change anyone’s mind, but future meetings have been promised to hash out operational details to ensure the smoothest transition.

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