The P2E Neptune air tanker sitting recently on the tarmac at the Santa Maria Jet Center won’t be a permanent fixture – even when a full-time tanker reload base opens at the airport next fire season.  It’s one of a federal fleet of air tankers that fly to bases across the country when they’re needed to fight a fire.

What will be there full-time when fire season starts on May 15 is a U.S. Forest Service base manager, ramp supervisor, and a parking tender to guide incoming and outgoing tankers.

Additionally, a representative from Idaho-based ICL Performance Products LP, the company contracted by the Forest Service to provide fire retardant, will be at the reload base full-time during fire season to make sure there’s no delay in trucking needed amounts of retardant from the supply house in Ontario should a fire break out.

The full-time staffing comes as a result of an agreement Nov. 7 between Santa Barbara County’s fire chiefs and the Forest Service, after months of negotiations and political lobbying from congress members Lois Capps and Elton Gallegly, and the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

The local representatives, several of whom are up for re-election in 2012, wanted reinstatement of a full-time air tanker reload base after the existing base was downgraded by the cash-strapped Forest Service to call-when-needed status in 2009.

Many contend that the devastating Jesusita Fire, which erupted May 5 in the hills above Santa Barbara just days before the official start of fire season that year, would have been less severe if air tankers had been immediately available.  The Forest Service argues that having a full-time base would have made little difference, however, because the fire moved at night and because of the wind. Tankers don’t fly at night and don’t go up if winds are more than 30 mph, said Andrew Madsen, U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

Additionally, the potential cost of several hundred thousand dollars to staff the full-time base could lead to job losses.  “We’re already at the breaking point of just a couple of salaries,” Madsen said.

Some benefits

Having a full-time base will ensure that air tankers can reload immediately if a fire breaks out in Santa Barbara County, and allows the planes to begin “painting the hills red” in about 90 minutes.

When the reload base operated on a call-when-needed basis, getting a plane on a fire could take from four to 48 hours, depending on how long it took to get the planes and personnel in place.

The difference is “response time,” said Raul Contreras, a Forest Service air base manager from Porterville, who was recently on duty at the Santa Maria base – the Forest Service provided full-time staffing at the reload base through Nov. 15 this year as part of the agreement.  Contreras said that having tankers able to reload in Santa Maria rather than flying to Paso Robles, the next closest base, could shave 30 to 60 minutes off a run.  “That’s essential for an initial attack,” he said.

Contreras said the contract with ICL will cost several hundred thousand dollars a year to pay for a full-time retardant supervisor. Aside from the base amount, the retardant provider doesn’t get paid unless retardant is used, and that cost is covered by regional federal dollars.

“We’re paying them to be here just in case,” Madsen said, “so that gives people peace of mind. That’s what the county fire chiefs wanted, the peace of mind that if … we’re ready to go.”  Madsen said that during the off season, the Santa Maria base will essentially operate as it did on call-when-needed.  “As of last Wednesday (Nov. 15), our forest aviation officer is the only staffing on site,” he said. “If a fire breaks between now and May 14, 2012, we would need to ‘open’ the reload facility before air tankers could reload retardant.”  Opening the base means moving the tanker base manager from an off-season role leading training at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Michael Dyer applauded the Forest Service contract with ICL – a one-year agreement with four 1-year renewal options – and its nod to staffing the base full-time.  “The agreement is great,” Dyer said. “The huge benefit to the citizens is going to be that, God forbid, when we have a large major fire here again, we’ll have the ability to refill tankers and load them up quicker than previously in the last two years.”

By Marga K. Cooley/Associate Editor mcooley@santamariatimes.com Santa Maria Times | Posted: Sunday, November 27, 2011