SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The Santa Maria Public Airport announced Tuesday it is expanding the US Forest Service Air Attack Base.
The Santa Maria Airport plays a crucial role in firefighting efforts. They are now expanding the air attack base to improve the state's response to wildfires.
"It's one of two bases, permanent bases, that can handle the DC-10 air tankers," said Jim Kunkle, President of Central Coast Jet Center. The air tankers travel as far as Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
There are three reloading pits at the airport and they are adding a fourth. A large temporary red tank mixes the fire retardant, and will be replaced with a permanent one soon.
Pit 4 will increase retardant capacity and improve efficiency for fire response, along with improving safety of operations.
"As the aircraft have gotten larger over time, it's gotten more and more difficult for safety reasons to keep the larger aircraft coming out with the smaller aircraft," said Chris Hastert, general manager of the airport. "It enables us to bring the larger aircraft... over on this side of the airport to keep them out of the mix of the smaller aircraft."
The Forest Service said that this year, they've used about 800,000 gallons of fire retardant from the Santa Maria air base alone.
Jacob Andrew Gipson, deputy fire management officer of the Los Padres National Forest and US Forest Service said the air tankers are quite large. "It can hold up to about 4,000 gallons depending, and some of them even more than that."
With fire season now lasting all year long in California, officials say this expansion of the Santa Maria base is very important.
"The central coast along with southern California is very prone to fires," said Gipson. "The ecosystem here is one of the most prone ecosystems to fire in the world."
Airport officials said the air tanker base in Santa Maria often disperses more fire retardant each fire season than most other bases in the country.