The U.S. Forest Service has agreed to re-designate the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base as a full-service facility in response to intense political pressure from the area’s fire chiefs plus congressmembers Lois Capps and Elton Gallegly. Absent full-service status, county fire chiefs contend the response time required to get firefighting planes landed, refueled, and reloaded with fire retardant is unacceptably slow. Although final details of the deal have not been officially finalized, full-service status for the base — located at the Santa Maria Airport — has already been reinstated.
The base was downgraded to call-when-needed status in 2009 — right before the Jesusita Fire erupted — much to the chagrin of the Santa Barbara firefighting community. Key to having full-service protection is having a tanker-base manager assigned to the base full-time, and there’s an acute shortage of trained and certified base managers throughout California. Without a manager on-site, fire retardant vendors will not deliver their product. At times, the Forest Service has had to scramble to fly managers in from other states, delaying activation time by 24 to 48 hours. When the new policy was announced, the pledge was that the base could be activated within three hours. Forest Service officials estimate it could cost as much as $200,000 to budget for two managers. Given tight fiscal constraints, that could well mean cuts to other Forest Service functions. In addition, the retardant vendors are charging $500 a day just to be on full-service standby.
As part of their lobbying campaign — spearheaded by former county supervisor Willy Chamberlin — the chiefs pledged to provide vaguely defined resources to help defray the financial burden on the Forest Service. To date, only the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department has stepped up, sending five employees this past weekend to get trained as tanker-base managers. Bolstering the effort to get full service restored, the county supervisors and city councils of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria passed declarations of support.