San Diego County Officials Go to White House for Large Fire Tankers

County to U.S. Forest Service: "Give us one of these airplanes"

County officials, frustrated over what was described as government bureaucracy, will petition the White House Tuesday to get involved in a regional fight over whether to station one of the government's largest firefighting aircraft in San Diego County.

In a rare move, the County Board of Supervisors will ask President Obama to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to station one of its large firefighting air tankers in Ramona which houses a regional CalFire air attack base.

"Seconds count," said District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "Seconds in responding to a fire can mean the difference between life and death."

Jacob represents the largest district in San Diego County and one that suffered greatly in wildfires in 2003 and 2007. Her region covers from La Mesa and Poway to Jacumba and Santa Ysabel and includes the Ramona Air Attack Base.

Cal Fire already stations a pair of smaller S-2T airtankers there. However, the larger tankers contracted by the Forest Service can hold 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, two and a half times the amount of the S-2Ts. These could include RJ 85, BAE-145 or C-130 aircraft.

Tony Mecham with Cal Fire said the state has 22 of the next-generation air tankers. One is stationed in San Bernardino.

It takes approximately 45 minutes to load up and fly that air tanker to San Diego County, Mecham said.

“Even if they have to download their retardant a little bit, because of the turnaround time for fires in San Diego is so much shorter we feel we can deliver more retardant on the fire which is ultimately what we want to do,” Mecham said.

Jacob said the county wants one of those tankers stationed here but the U.S. Forest Service has said the runway in Ramona is too short and doesn't have the load capacity to handle the heavier aircraft.

In a letter dated June 25, Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management (FAM) outlined several reasons why the agency decided to place the tankers in San Bernardino.

“Ramona does not meet the accelerate/stop distance requirements for transport category aircraft of this size and weight, with full payload, at the Ramona average summer temperature and elevation,” Harbour writes.

That argument took a hit recently however when a similar aircraft, used by Cal Fire, landed on the runway without any problems.

“So for the Forest Service to just say ‘No, it doesn’t work’, they’re wrong. It works. And it was demonstrated last week” said Jacob. “So, now what’s their excuse? Give us one of these airplanes."

Harbour added that Brown Field, with its 8,000-foot runway, would be a backup for San Bernardino if needed.

He also said it’s not cost effective to operate such large aircraft at less than full payload.

Jacob admits an appeal to the president is a rare move saying the last time she remembers doing it, President Bill Clinton was in office.

On Tuesday, the supervisors voted unanimously to send a message to President Obama asking for him to get involved in the placement of the tankers.

Harbour's letter was addressed to San Diego County’s Congressional leaders and offered additional helicopters and water scoopers that can “safely operate” out of Ramona in the event of a wildfire incident.

San Diego County owns three firefighting helicopters, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department has two firefighting helicopters and Cal Fire has helicopters and fixed wing aircraft based here in San Diego.

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