USA - In fire-prone Bastrop County, where two massive wildfires in five years devastated the area, one of the largest complaints officials have is the lack of resources available on hand to fight fires.
Since 2011, nearly 40,000 acres of the Lost Pines forest in Bastrop County has burned to the ground. In the heat of disaster, emergency response teams have had to call on resources hundreds of miles away to help battle blazes swallowing acres by the minute.
Now, officials believe they have made steps toward a solution.
On Thursday, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport will unveil a new portable air tanker base designed to fight wildfires throughout Central Texas and the state.
The mobile base will have room to store large Type 1 tankers and DC-10 aircraft that can carry as much as 12,000 gallons of fire retardant at a time, as well as tarmac space for staging and operations and quarters for flight crews.
It will be the second of its kind in Texas, with the first located in Abilene.
This tanker base represents a monumental advancement in wildfire preparedness for our area, state Rep. John Cyrier said in a statement last week. His office played a large part in bringing the resources to ABIA, after watching his constituents in Bastrop County battle through two wildfires.
In 2015, the Hidden Pines Fire scorched 4,600 acres north of Smithville. In 2011, the Bastrop County Complex Fire burned 34,000 acres and destroyed 1,600 homes. It was called the most destructive wildfire in Texas history.
During both incidents, state officials had to use smaller aircraft to fight the fire while waiting on resources from as far away as Tennessee, New Mexico and Arizona, diminishing response time and capability, Cyrier said.
It was one of the main criticisms from an independent group of citizens which put together a study evaluating the 2015 fire.
In their 70-page report, the Lost Pines Property Owners Fire Protection Task Force, made up of residents affected by the Hidden Pines Fire, found that officials had underestimated the size of the blaze by 400 percent and reduced critical resources in its first 24 hours.
In addition to those shortcomings, the task force also found a significant lack of firefighting resources on hand in Central Texas.
It recommended, as one of 14 improvements, the establishment of a permanent tanker base at ABIA.
We tried to stress in the report how important it was to have these Type 1 tankers and larger tankers available very quickly so you get a shot at trying to knock out the wildfire in its early stages, task force spokesperson Jim Boyle said. I hope we had some influence on getting this issue front and center.
But Boyle called Cyrier the lynch pin in bringing the ABIA project to fruition.
He was the right person at the right time, he said.
A pilot himself, Cyrier performed aerial observations during the 2011 Complex Fire. On behalf of Bastrop County, he helped forge connections between the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Austin Fire Department and the airport to make the tanker base a reality.
Because the airport base is a mobile facility, it will not have tankers stationed on location full-time. Its resources will be able to be moved to other locations to fight wildfires in other parts of the state.
Boyle said the next step would be to establish a permanent tanker base at the airport there are currently none in the state.
Equipment for the mobile base will be paid for through a state appropriation given to the Forest Service as part of the Texas Wildfire Protection Plan. Firefighters from the Austin Fire Department and surrounding areas will be trained to employ those resources.
Additionally, a smaller single engine air tanker base is planned at the Smithville Crawford Municipal Airport part of a 10-year plan for the facility. It will store six SEAT aircraft that can carry up to 800 gallons of fire retardant each, officials said.