The aircraft arrived last week because the drought and recent hot, dry and windy conditions have increased the risk of wildfires along the Central Coast and beyond.  In fact, fire and state emergency managers who gathered Monday to kick off Wildfire Awareness Week, May 5 through 11, said the foothills of Southern California are as dry now as they usually are in July or August, the height of the wildfire season.

A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service said the planes were brought into Santa Maria early because of recent red flag warnings for extreme fire danger in Southern California.  The planes are usually stationed on the Central Coast through November.

Officials say aircraft can make a critical difference in controlling a wildfire, especially if they are deployed as soon as a blaze is reported.  “Aircraft are more effective in initial attack, the early stages of a fire before it gets up and takes off and gets large, and they cool the fire off for ground resources, hand crews and engines to be able to work close and extinguish the fire,” said Mark Nunez of the U.S. Forest Service.

The DC-10, the largest of the firefighting aircraft currently stationed at the airport, can carry about 12,000 gallons of retardant, Nunez said.  That can be spread over a mile-long area or used on fires as small as five acres, he said.

Firefighting agencies say the Santa Maria Public Airport is one of the prime air attack bases on the West Coast.

In addition to the tanker facility, the airport has a long runway and is strategically located between the volatile mountains of Southern California, the rugged Sierra Nevada to the east and the coastal ranges to the north and south.

Officials who launched Wildfire Awareness Week at Cal Fire’s Aviation Management Unit, located at McClellan Air Force Base, said this wildfire season has the potential to be even more destructive than usual.  With California is facing its third dry year, the parched grasses, brush and trees have become prime fuel.  Officials hope Wildfire Awareness Week will raise people’s consciousness of wildfire danger and actions they can take to reduce the risk to their homes and communities.

“The historic drought that is upon us makes wildfire preparedness more critical than ever,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services.  “There’s a very high likelihood of well-above-normal (numbers of) fires and perhaps a chance of longer-lasting fires, which require more resources in order to fight them,” he said.

So far this year, California has already experienced more wildfires than normal, officials said.  As of April 26, more than 1,100 wilidfires have been reported in the state — more than double the average of the previous five years.

Even before this year’s deepening drought, forest officials were reporting longer fire seasons and more catastrophic megafires in California and other Western states.  More than half of California’s worst fires in recorded history have occurred since 2002, fire officials said.

As many as 90 percent of U.S. wildland fire are caused by humans — from campfires left unattended, burning debris, negligently discarded cigarettes and arson.

Residents, especially in rural areas, are advised to create a defensible space around their homes by clearing brush, thinning trees and removing combustible debris.

For more information, contact a local fire department, Cal Fire or Forest Service office.

May 6, 2014  •  Mike Hodgson / mhodgson@santamariatimes.com