By Dave Alley
SANTA MARIA, Calif. – As more seasonal warmer and drier weather conditions arrive, the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base is gearing up for the beginning of peak fire season.
Staffing at the base, which is located on the south end of the Santa Maria Airport, is now fully staffed and ready to respond when an wildland fire breaks out.
The primary response area for the base covers more than 3.6 million acres of land, and includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, as well as the Los Padres National Forest.
“We’ve got six personnel staffed with the base and that’s parking tenders, ramp coordinator, tanker base manager, time keeper and then between the primary mix plant here with Permanent Solutions and the annex, there’s upwards of six to seven personnel ready to load tankers,” said Alex Ihle, Air Tactical Group Supervisor Los Padres National Forest, U.S. Forest Service. “With the air attack platform, there’s myself and a trainee, as well as our contract pilot, and with Tanker 101, there’s two pilots and a crew chief.”
Due to significant rainfall over the past winter, which continued into the spring, the base has actually been unusually quiet since opening nearly two months ago.
“The base opens May 15 and we didn’t deliver any retardant until early June and that’s just a result of more rainfall than normal,” said Ihle. “We are in essence about two months behind where we normally would be. Our fuel moistures now, the forest average are right about 96-to-97%, and we typically see that fuel moisture percentage in early May, so we’re a couple of months behind.”
Since opening in mid-May, the base has responded to just eight wildland fires, including the Villanova Fire near Ojai earlier in the week. While the tanker crew from base flew out to the fire, it did not drop any retardant on the blaze that was limited to 20 acres.
In preparation for the warmer summer months, Tanker 101, an MD-87 has been stationed at the base since June 5.
“It carries 3,000 gallons and is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, air tankers in the fleet,” said Ihle. “Brent Conner the captain, has been supporting wildland fires for quite some time. Look forward to working with them on the next incident that comes up.”
Conner said the tanker will be stationed at the base as long as the need remains.
While there have very few wildland fires over the past two months, Ihle indicated conditions may change significantly causing the tanker base to increase its operations.
“With the grass crop that we have, there’s no shortage of potential, especially late in the year should we get Santa Ana winds,” said Ihle. “One-hour fuels carry fires and take fires from day one into day two and into day 10, and we’re always in for the long haul. This is one of the federal bases that tends to staff late into the year and we have the depth and capability to do that.”
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