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Local News

Santa Maria Air Tanker Base Provides Key Role in Fighting Wildfires

At least five fixed-wing aircraft are staged at the base, ready to aid ground firefighting crews assigned to the Thomas Fire raging in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties

Rick Todd, co-pilot of an air tanker, sits at Santa Maria Public Airport air tanker base between missions for the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties on Friday. Click to view larger
Rick Todd, co-pilot of an air tanker, sits at Santa Maria Public Airport air tanker base between missions for the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties on Friday.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A collection of firefighting aircraft and crews sat at the Santa Maria Public Airport Friday afternoon awaiting another set of orders to support the Thomas Fire fight while united by their unique mission.

“We might be different companies. We might be different agencies, but we’re all on the same team,” said co-pilot Rick Todd from Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87. “And we’re all doing the same work. The goal is to put the fire out and come home safe.”

A simple order would end a rare moment of calm for the U.S. Forest Service’s Santa Maria air tanker base, sending planes back into the skies above the ferocious Thomas Fire that had burned more than 260,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as of Saturday

The air tanker base has been operating for a decade and it throttles up as flames rage, with aircraft operating from two locations on the Santa Maria airfield to fill up with fuel and Phos-Chek before heading out on a mission.

“Basically, we’re here to help coordinate the smooth and efficient operation of aircraft coming in and out, to reload the planes with retardant and fuel if they need it ,and then send them out to a particular location on the fire,” said Forest Service Battalion Chief Mark Babieracki, who currently is assigned to the tanker base.

At least five fixed-wing aircraft, operated by firms under contract to fire agencies, were temporarily stationed at the airport Friday.

The planes are not permanently based in Santa Maria and the tanker base staffing size, of both Forest Service personnel and contractors' employees, can fluctuate. 

The Santa Maria Public Airport air tanker base includes a sign greeting aircrews arriving to the southside of the airfield. Click to view larger
The Santa Maria Public Airport air tanker base includes a sign greeting aircrews arriving to the southside of the airfield. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The fleet of air tankers Friday included a DC-10, C-130, MD-87s, and BAE-146, all of which can be heard flying above the Santa Maria Valley during firefighting operations, delivering between 2,500 to 12,000 gallons to retardant per load.

“This facility can take every single aircraft minus the 747,” Babieracki said. The tanker base's limits are related to the lack of space for loading fuel and retardant on the behemoth plane, he added.

Once a request for air support arrives, the tanker base helps aircraft get off the ground and into the air.

Crews can get a tanker needing fuel and Phos-Chek back in the air after 15 minutes on the ground, Babieracki estimated. 

Aircraft play a key role in trying to contain blazes like the Thomas Fire, and the summer's Alamo and Whittier fires.

“The terrain out there is extremely challenging for individuals on the ground to access. It just makes it more challenging all the way around so aircraft are utilized to help slow the spread to allow ground firefighters to get in there," Babieracki said, adding that smoke and winds can hamper the use of aircraft when fighting a wildfire.

While awaiting the next order, Todd, the co-pilot from Erickson Aero Tanker MD-87, showed off the interior of the airliner which includes tablet computers on the yokes in the cockpit.

An Erickson Aero Tanker is parked at the Santa Maria Public tanker base while another aircraft sits on the other side of the airfield ready to support the Thomas Fire. Click to view larger
An Erickson Aero Tanker is parked at the Santa Maria Public tanker base while another aircraft sits on the other side of the airfield ready to support the Thomas Fire. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The high-tech device holding the assorted maps, radio frequency and approach diagrams for airports, satellite-based navigation and more.

“It gives all that situational awareness that we didn’t have 10 years without those iPads,” said Todd, who has logged 5,600 flight hours with 350 over fires. 

A smaller lead aircraft choreographs the movement of larger tankers near the fire zone.

“The lead guys are the guys that have a huge workload. They’re flying, they’re talking on the radio, they’re flying close to the ground,” Todd said. “What they do is absolutely amazing and they get little credit for it.”

When it comes time to release fire retardant — stored in huge tankers in the belly of the plane — onto flames below, cockpit controls let pilots decide the speed and amount, Todd said. Typically, less Phos-Check is dropped for a grass fire while more is deployed for burning trees.

“A lot of it depends where it’s burning and what it’s burning, and that’s all dictated by the pilot and the air attack guy up above,” Todd said. 

Oftentimes, pilots make those deliveries while flying approximately 200 feet above the tallest obstacle. 

Tablets have become a cockpit tool for crews of fire tankers as co-pilot Rick Todd points to the control panel that allows pilots to control the speed and amount of fire retardants releases. Click to view larger
Tablets have become a cockpit tool for crews of fire tankers as co-pilot Rick Todd points to the control panel that allows pilots to control the speed and amount of fire retardants releases.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Anyone who has watched air tankers work over a fire knows the crews deliver a line of fire retardant with amazing precision. 

“We can pretty much box in a 10-acre fire,” Todd said.

With that type of precision required while flying, the pilots sitting in the cockpits, especially those serving as crew captain, must have a high level of skill.

“Flying an airliner is an awful lot of responsibility. I would saying flying an air tanker is a considerably more responsibility  and it’s a whole new level above being an airline captain,” Todd said.

“It’s not for everybody because you’re in really dangerous environments.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

With an American flag hanging above, huge tanks to hold retardant sit inside a fire tanker aircraft awaiting the next mission over the Thomas Fire. Click to view larger
With an American flag hanging above, huge tanks to hold retardant sit inside a fire tanker aircraft awaiting the next mission over the Thomas Fire. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)
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