L.A. County may hire local supertanker

L.A. County may hire local supertanker

16 December 2006

published by www.vvdailypress.com

USA — After proving itself on several major fires this year, thefirefighting DC-10 supertanker is looking for a full-time job.

On Friday, fire chiefs from Los Angeles County flew to Victorville to conductthe interview. And if the county hires the plane, it would keep a crew inVictorville, where the tanker is based.

“I think we’re going to try to get it on contract ourselves where thecrew is here (in Victorville) all the time,” said Anthony Marrone, chief ofAir Operations for the L.A. County Fire Department, as he prepared to board thehelicopter back to Los Angeles.

The cost of contracting the tanker has been mentioned as $5 million, but forMarrone, that amount is not too much.

“Look at the Day Fire — it cost $72 million,” he said, adding thatviewing $5 million as too much of an expense was “pennywise and pound foolish.”

After watching the plane unload 12,000 gallons of water — twice — on the15,000-foot runway at Southern California Logistics Airport, Marrone said hethought the plane could be used to gain an edge on the first day of a fire,keeping it from spreading. The tanker carries five times as much liquid as thenext largest firefighting plane.

Last year the acreage burned in wildland fires was at its highest since 1963,and many experts say population growth is increasing the risk of loss of lifeand property from fires, as development reaches to wilderness areas.

Even in the city of Los Angeles, the most feared disaster is a wildland firethat spreads to the city, said Deputy Chief Mario Rueda.

“We see it as our No. 1 hazard facing the city,” Rueda said. “Eventhough the Osama bin Ladens are running around out there, the wildland interfaceis there and … it’s worse than ever.”

Rueda was referring to areas in the Santa Monica Mountains, from GriffithPark all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and for about eight miles between Venturaand Sunset boulevards, where homes border wildlands.
“It’s all brush with thousands and thousands of houses,” he said.

The DC-10 tanker is the first jet plane to be used to fight a fire. In July,the California Department of Forestry certified the plane and put it to work onthe Sawtooth Fire. It made 14 runs total this year, dropping 320,000 gallons ofwater or retardant.

But the U.S. Forest Service has not approved the tanker for use on federallands, a sticking point with many local officials.

The tanker sat dormant during the Esperanza Fire, which took the life of fivefirefighters in October.

“This appears to be the worst case of old-boy networking that I have seenin my career,” said U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, a Republican from HuntingtonBeach who came to SCLA Friday to support the tanker. “I’m very deeplyimpressed with this private-sector alternative. It’s serving the public goodand yet they (the Forest Service) have been dragging their feet for years.”

According to published reports, the Forest Service has not yet approved theDC-10 tanker because of safety concerns in light of three fatal crashes in 2004that were attributed to structural failures.

But for Rick Hatton, managing partner of the DC-10 tanker, the planesinvolved in the 2004 crashes were much older military transport planes and arenot similar to the DC-10.

“Interesting tool,” said L.A. Deputy Fire Chief Rueda after watchingFriday’s demonstration.

Rueda’s main concern was protecting people on the ground in the tanker’spath.

“I think we have to give it some real thought,” he said.

According to CDF officials, the tanker has been shown to be effective bygiving time to crews on the ground to build a line against the fire.

For Hatton, the tanker needs a sponsor or it cannot continue operating.

“So far, we’ve been called when needed. We can’t sustain our heavyfixed costs indefinitely by playing that game.”

Hatton would like the state of California, or a consortium of Western states,to hire the tanker so that his company can build another one.

But Hatton may not have to wait for state support; one metropolitan countymight beat them to it.

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