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Heat wave puts Santa Maria Air Tanker Base on heightened alert

Santa Maria Air Tanker Base
A Coulson Aviation air tanker sits at the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base Thursday morning. (Dave Alley/KEYT)

SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- With temperatures on the rise around the Central Coast, as well as throughout the state, it has put the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base on high alert.

"The forecast is for some unprecedented heat, which can create some extreme fire behavior," said Alex Ihle, Air Tactical Group Supervisor. "It's definitely a heightened awareness for the aviation resources."

As temperatures are expected to soar into potentially record-breaking numbers this weekend in some places, the readiness of the base is being ratcheted up.

"The tanker base is working extended hours from 07:00 in the morning until cut off in the evening, which is just before 20:00 (8:00 p.m.)," said Ihle. "We're up staffing. There's some extra base personnel, parking tenders, dispatchers, and all the things that happen behind the scenes.”

This week, two aircraft, as well as third, a small spotter plane, have been positioned at the base.

"A Type-1 air tanker and a Type-1 helicopter, in addition to the fuelers and the folks that mix and pump retardant," said Ihle. "The Santa Maria reload base supports upwards of about 3 million acres. Adjoining bases are Paso Robles, Porterville and Fox Field (Lancaster). Should we get a new start, we're ready to support."

Late Thursday morning, there was another addition to the base when a DC-10 flew in from San Bernardino.

"It carries around 9,500 gallons," said Ihle. "They coming to handle a few things maintenance wise. We'll see if they end up staying. That's up to the decision makers at the GACC (Geographic Area Coordination Centers).

With the heightened awareness, everyone at the base knows their support could be needed at any second.

"We try and stay a little more vigilant, make sure we're actually here ready to go," said Phillip Townsend, Coulson Aviation air tanker co-pilot. "In case something happens, we want to be ready to go at a moment's notice."

Base crews have already been working hard this week. On Wednesday, they responded to a pair of fires in Southern California.

"We went a flew a couple of drops over on the fire outside of the Los Angeles area (Route Fire near Castaic)," said Townsend. "We then got diverted from that one down to the one on the southern border between here and Mexico."

Ihle and the spotter plane also flew to the Route Fire on Wednesday and worked the same fire on Thursday to provide a four-hour support mission.

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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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