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Santa Maria air tanker base providing valuable support in fighting Cave Fire

Air Tanker at SM Airport
The Santa Maria Air Tanker Base is an important resource in fighting the Cave Fire near Santa Barbara (Dave Alley/KEYT)

SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- Firefighting efforts at the Cave Fire received a huge boost Tuesday with aerial support from the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base.

"The guys on the ground really rely on aerial resources, retardant, water and having us getting to them expeditiously and working out of Santa Maria really helps that," said Ryan Curl, DC-10 air tanker pilot."

The base is located at the southwest edge of the Santa Maria Airport at the Central Coast Jet Center.

"You need all of this to work well," said Chris Kunkle, Central Coast Jet Center Vice President of Operations. "Having Santa Maria Air Tanker Base here, and how efficient it is, it just changes the whole dynamic of how we can fight it."

The Cave Fire is located less than 50 miles from the base on a flight path, so the air tanker base is an extremely beneficial resource for firefighters.

"Having a tanker base that's within 10-20 minute turnaround from the fire is huge," said Kunkle. "The next tanker base if it wasn't for Santa Maria would probably be Lancaster. That would probably double, almost triple the turnaround time."

As of Tuesday morning, a total of six aircraft were using the base to reload and refuel and provide continuous drops of retardant.

A United States Forest Service DC-10 air tanker was the biggest airplane using the base. There was also one Cal Fire LAT (large air tanker), along with four smaller, Cal Fire S-2 planes.

By late afternoon, additional aircraft, including two more LAT planes arrived.

"We are in extremely mountainous terrain," said Curl. "We're dropping at about 4,500 feet all the way down to sea level, so we're dealing with steep country, high winds, smoke. We're working in close conjunction with the guys on the ground. It's tough to see when we come over a ridge."

The DC-10 tankers are able to hold 9,400 gallons of retardant, while the LAT holds 3,000 gallons, and the S-2 provides about 1,100 gallons.

Working together, the airplanes are able to make a huge different in battling the flames.

"They're doing a real good job," said Curl, referencing the entire crew. "They're keeping up with the retardant and the fueling with no problem, which makes our job easier because we can get the retardant on the ground quickly and help the folks out there on the line."

Over the course of the, all of the aircraft were able to drop 50 loads totaling 105,000 gallons of retardant.

All of airplanes were not based in Santa Maria prior to the fire breaking on late Monday afternoon.

Kunkle said the DC-10 was in San Bernardino, while the LAT was in Sacramento and the S-2 planes were at other bases, such as Paso Robles and Porterville.

The first plane was able to take off from Santa Maria at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Throughout the day, planes constantly arrived, reloaded and departed. It was well-fueled operation that has become a familiar sight in the Santa Maria Valley any time a large wildfire breaks out.

Curl said it also demonstrated the importance of having the air tanker base at the Santa Maria Airport.

"Quick turns on the fuel. Quick turns on the retardant, basically allows us to get up to the fire and help the folks on the ground that much more expeditiously, so it's real fortunate we're that close," Curl said.

Article Topic Follows: Fire
air tanker
Cave fire
santa maria airport
tanker base

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Dave Alley

Dave Alley is a reporter and anchor at News Channel 3-12. To learn more about Dave, click here.


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