Feds move air firefighting base farther from South Shore | SierraSun.com

Feds move air firefighting base farther from South Shore

Kurt Hildebrand and Jeff Munson
Sun News Service

LAKE TAHOE ” The Bureau of Land Management is removing its air tanker support staff from Minden-Tahoe Airport, saying the move will increase response time to South Lake Tahoe by only about five minutes.

BLM Public Information Officer Mark Struble acknowledged the decision to consolidate heavy tanker operations in Stead would be unpopular in Douglas County and at the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

“I know it’s going to be unpopular down there,” he said. “It was a tough decision, but we honestly think Stead has a lot going for it. It has more airstrips, and is easier to fly out of. The time to places like South Lake Tahoe isn’t that different.”

Fire agency chiefs within the basin are reviewing the BLM policy changes. Though the response time is factored in, some South Shore fire officials said the change shouldn’t be detrimental.

“There will always be a concern if you’re increasing the delivery time of resources. However, they have structured this efficiently, and I support their decision and appreciate the fact that they are maintaining air support coverage in Northern Nevada,” said Tahoe-Douglas Fire Chief Guy LeFever.

Plans do allow for maintaining some level of service at the Minden-Tahoe Airport in the event of a fire, according to the BLM. If, for example a fire is at the southern end of the Sierra, the aircraft may take off from Stead but can refill with fuel and fire retardant at Minden-Tahoe.

“The BLM will maintain its support piece, and the firefighting effort will remain the same. It won’t be a huge difference,” said South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti.

Struble said Western Nevada would be covered by Stead and Grass Valley, both with average flight times of 20 minutes.

“There are a lot of resources around here that we’re protecting,” he said. “But the equipment has changed so much over the years, so the needs and the services need to change.”

Struble said the number of heavy tankers has dropped over the past 20 years from 48 to 18, and the need for the heavy tanker bases has decreased.

“We’ve been operating with about 37 percent of the big heavy tankers we’ve had,” he said. “The equipment has changed so much over the years, and now the needs and services need to change.”

The increased use of single-engine air tankers has eliminated the need for large bases, where aircraft must be refueled and refilled with fire retardant.

“The SEATs aren’t tied to any one big air tanker base,” he said. “They have their own support staff. They can operate off any airstrip. We just need one liaison.”

The air tanker base in Minden has four staff members during wildfire season. Those workers will be used at Stead or work with the smaller tankers. With agreements with Alpine County and other smaller airports, Struble said firefighters have more flexibility.

“We’ve been providing staffing for 10 years at a Nevada Division of Forestry base,” Struble said. “We need those people at Stead.”

The move will affect business at Minden-Tahoe Airport, where the heavy tankers would purchase fuel and pay landing fees.

Tim Christy of Minden Air pointed out that some fuel vendors relied on the tankers during fire season. Struble said the smaller tankers might purchase fuel at the airport, but that their support includes fuel, in case they’re stationed at an airport without fuel for sale.

The BLM primarily uses single-engine air tankers in Nevada and eastern California. The U.S. Forest Service operates the contracts with the heavy tankers. Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Supervisor Ed Monnig said the BLM’s decision matches Forest Service efforts to consolidate their bases across the West for cost efficiency and more effective use of critical resources.

“By consolidating all of our heavy air tanker support at Stead,” said Monnig, “and supplementing this base with highly mobile smaller tankers across western Nevada, I believe Forest Service firefighting efforts will continue to be effectively supported in a way that makes best use of scarce resources.”

Struble said federal officials have been discussing consolidating the heavy tanker bases since a series of crashes grounded the fleet in 2004.

“If we were a private company and we suddenly lost 63 percent of our equipment, we would have to stop staffing some of the bases servicing that equipment,” he said.

Struble said the Bureau of Land Management will continue to staff the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center located at Minden-Tahoe Airport. The Nevada Division of Forestry will continue to operate two firefighting helicopters from the base. Estimates of the cost savings have ranged around $100,000 per base.

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