Minden air tanker sat idle during early hours of Tahoe fire
June 28, 2007
In the first critical hours of the Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe, a Minden air tanker that could have reached the fire in 15 minutes sat idle.
Privately owned by Minden Air Corp., tanker 55 was approved for firefighting by the U.S. Forest Service on June 11. Its contract date with the Forest Service was initially set for July 1, so it was not officially active to fly during the Angora fire.
Minden Air CEO Leonard Parker, who has contracted with the Forest Service to provide air tankers for 16 years, expressed frustrations over being grounded during the fire.
“The core of this issue is, that’s why we’re here. Most of the people in this business are firefighters first and pilots second,” he said. “My co-pilot drove up to the Lake this weekend and what he saw was people running for their lives.”
The Angora fire, which started at about 2:10 p.m. Sunday, has displaced thousands of residents and destroyed an estimated 3,100 acres, in addition to more than 200 structures in South Lake Tahoe.
Mindy Stevenson, manager for the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden, said two heavy air tankers were called to fight the Angora fire at 3 p.m. Sunday, both from Stead Airport.
The center also dispatched two type II helicopters, two hot shot crews and one Slide Mountain crew Sunday, Stevenson said.
“We can only use what is stationed and on contract,” Stevenson said. “What we had was two heavy air tankers at Stead.”
The flight from Stead adds at least 30 minutes to the round-trip response time to Lake Tahoe, according to local pilots.
Parker said that first response is important.
“Once the fire starts blowing and going, you’re just chasing it,” he said. “Sometimes, the terrain is so rugged that aerial resources are the one effective deterrent.”
Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said these air tankers drop retardant to assist firefighters during the initial attack, curbing the fire’s activity until fire crews can start working on the ground.
“You can’t drown a fire,” she said. “Fire managers on the ground decide what they need. They don’t just send planes out. There was no shortage of tankers, according to our dispatch.
“If they ordered two tanker drops, they got them,” Davis said.
Tankers, such as a P-3 Orion, cost about $10,000 a day under contract. However, when off-contract, the cost is about $8,000-$10,000 an hour.
Frank Mosbacher, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said one tanker was called in from Redding, Calif. Helicopters were pulled in from as far away as Cedar City, Utah, and Wenatchee, Wash., as well as many from California.
None of these tankers have home bases and when the plane lands on the tarmac, it stays where it is until the next assignment, Mosbacher said.
Tanker 55 has since been called up and will be based out of the San Bernardino area.
Davis said the tankers contracted each year for firefighting are staggered, based on the prognosis for the fire season.
There is a pre-option period written into contracts, but there would have been no reason to bring tanker 55 on early if the need was filled by other firetankers, she said.
“There is still pressure to be diligent about costs, even with the increase in fire activity,” Davis said.
The U.S. Forest Service spent $1.5 billion for firefighting alone last year, due in part to increases in fuel and aviation costs, she said.
“Last year was a record year, but we still need to get the most bang for our buck,” she said. “When the dollar figures add up to $1.5 billion for one agency, we get a lot of attention.
“We’re being scrutinized very closely by Congress about money and spending,” she said. “In the big picture, it’s about what’s available and what the fire manager on the ground wants. They make the call.”
• Contact reporter Susie Vasquez at email@example.com or 782-5121, ext. 211.