Air Tanker Dispute Pits U.S. Forest Service Against S.D. County

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The tower at the Ramona airport. Courtesy County News Center

Updated at 2:30 pm July 21, 2015.

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The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to get the White House to resolve a dispute between the county and U.S. Forest Service over landing air tankers at the Ramona Airport to aid in firefighting efforts.

The next-generation aerial tankers are based in San Bernardino, where they land and reload with 3,000 gallons of fire retardant to aid with firefighting efforts across Southern California.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Chairman Bill Horn will appeal to President Barack Obama’s administration to allow at least one of the Forest Service’s 22 aircraft to operate out of Ramona during San Diego County’s wildfire season.

The supervisors said aircraft based in San Bernardino take longer to reach wildfires in the San Diego region, potentially contributing to loss of property or life.

To get from San Bernardino to Ramona would take the next-generation air tanker — which fly at 345 miles per hour — about six minutes, according to the Forest Service.

According to Horn and Jacob, Ramona already has infrastructure to supply retardant and fuel to the aircraft because it’s a major base for Cal Fire aircraft. The runways are long enough and strong enough to accommodate the USFS planes, the two supervisors said.

The federal agency disagrees.

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The Forest Service’s Jennifer Jones said the Ramona base doesn’t have a long enough runway for air tankers with a full load of fire retardant and fuel to take off and land safely. To operate safely, the tankers would have to fly at a lower capacity, which isn’t cost-effective for the agency, she said.

Unlike Cal Fire, Jones said, the Forest Service is responsible for responding to wildfires across the nation, often diverting air tankers from one blaze to another. The federal air tankers are moved around the country round-the-clock depending on current and predicted fire activity.

Jacob said it’s unusual for the supervisors to appeal to the White House, but the Forest Service isn’t budging on the issue.

“We need to make it loud and clear to the federal government that these air tankers could save lives and property,” Jacob said. “We need to spur the federal government to bolster our firefighting capabilities.”

The supervisors said the aircraft don’t need to be based in Ramona, just authorized to take off and land at the airfield in the San Diego County foothills, which fire experts said would allow for each tanker to make eight additional drops per day on fires in the region.

Jones said flying firefighting air tankers is the most dangerous thing the Forest Service does, with aviation accidents accounting for half of federal fire fatalities from 2005-14.

The Forest Service is taking a safety-first approach to operating air tankers out of Ramona, Jones said. While the Forest Service’s aviation experts don’t want the next-generation air tankers operating in Ramona, they are willing to utilize other aircraft such as helicopters and water scoopers. Brown Field can also function as an air tanker base when there are wildfires in the county.

The Fire Chiefs Association and Cal Fire are both in support of hosting an air tanker in Ramona, the supervisors said.

County staff will now compose a letter urging the Obama administration to take the steps necessary to allow the tankers to use the Ramona airfield, and provide copies to the Forest Service and local congressional delegation, among others.

City News Service

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