Health & Safety

May 24, 2012

Tanker base on airfield here supports fire-suppression efforts

Story and photos by Natalie Lakosil
Staff Writer

Crewmembers work to refill a P2 aircraft with retardant during the Arizona/Mexico fire the week before last. P2s can carry as much as 2,082 gallons of retardant at a time.

Although summer time is just around the corner, fire season is already here.

The Libby Air Tanker Base on Fort Huachuca often assists with fire suppression during the fire season which is the case, right now.

“The air tanker base is a national resource for anytime there is a fire and aerial support is needed. They will bring in the air tankers and show them where to make their drops on the fire,” said Libby Air Tanker Base Manager, Gilbert Gil, who works for the U.S. Forest Service.

The air tanker base was located on Fort Huachuca in the early 1970s, and it is a good geographical location to cover southeastern Arizona and part of New Mexico,” Gil said.

“We have tankers scattered throughout the region in Arizona and New Mexico. We are positioned to where the flight times aren’t very far between each tanker base,” Gil added.

“There are two air tanker bases in Winslow and Prescott as well as one in Phoenix, so if there is a fire up around Flagstaff and we have a tanker and they want it, we will fill it up with retardant and send it up there, and they will start working out of that base,” Gil said.

The air tanker base has no military affiliation though it is located on Fort Huachuca. It is part of the Forest Service.

“I don’t think a lot of people know we are here,” Gil said.

“These guys have to fly out of a well-established airfield, and Libby Army Airfield is here so they use that. When they started the air tankers here it was just a good location that the military gave us,” Gil explained.

Workers at Libby Air Tanker Base control the retardant and help to speed up the process while refilling planes. It takes seven to 10 minutes to fill one up.

Gil uses the winter, their off-season, to get all forms and documents ready for the upcoming fire season. He also makes sure the retardant contractors will be taken care of when they arrive.

“Usually it is just myself and an assistant manager, then as we get fires and get busy, I start bringing people in from other regions and parts of the U.S. that can help. I bring in other tanker base managers like myself to help me out with the paperwork and stuff like that, and I bring in what I call ‘parking tenders,’ who park the aircraft,” Gil said.

“We have sent retardant all the way to Texas, to California, wherever the pilot thinks he can carry [it] that distance, then we’ll cover it, anywhere from Phoenix to this area and to Silver City,” Gil said.

The planes hop around to where they are needed.

“We have 11 air tankers on contract this year. We lost some from last year but that’s all we have nationally,” Gil said. “They are trying to bring on some new ones later in the summer.”

P2 planes and smaller single engine air tankers are also available to the Forest Service. Both planes can carry water or retardant. The P2 can carry 2,082 gallons of retardant and the SEATs can carry 750 gallons.

“We have some of the SEATs and we can just call when we need them. We also have military aerial firefighting systems. They put tanks inside a C130 and they are scattered throughout the U.S. so whenever all 11 P2s are busy they will bring those in. We also have an agreement with Canada to bring in their air tankers if we get busy,” Gil said.

“We can be closer to the fires, being here. Instead of having just one tanker base in Arizona, the flight times would be too long. Being here right on this side where there is fire activity, it makes us closer and more accessible,” Gil said.

The group has flown several fires so far this year. The fires were by Willcox, Safford and two fires on the Arizona – Mexico border.

“Once the ground crews are on the fire and they realize that they are going to need … aerial support to hold the fire until they can really get people around it, then that’s when they call and ask us to help,” Gil added.

Crew members work to refill a single engine air tanker with retardant to help control the Arizona/Mexico School Canyon Fire two weeks ago. SEATS can hold up to 750 gallons of retardant at one time.

The fire retardant is a fertilizer with a gum-thickening agent to keep it together with a red/orange coloring agent so the pilots can see it from the air and they can just keep connecting to it as they go. Once it begins raining, the fertilizer washes into the soil and helps the area to revegetate.

Retardant does not put the fire out. It is designed to contain the fire and keep it from spreading until firefighters arrive and can begin fire-suppression activity.

“We can get up in the mountains [quickly]. It will take a crew a while to get up there, so we can hold the fire until the crews can hike up there,” Gil explained.

“The planes come here to refuel and pick up more retardant, and when they are done and are no longer needed on the fire, they all just stay here until the next fire, then they travel,” Gil said.

“They are always on the road, never staying long in one spot. They travel all over the U.S. all summer long, so we try to make them feel at home while their here,” he added.

“The fire season began this year with a fire in early March. It quieted down until April 1 and has remained open since then,” Gil said. “We support whoever needs an air tanker — the military, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, whoever needs the aircraft,” Gil said.

Last year 658 flights were made from Libby Air Tanker Base from early March to the middle of August. Pilots used more than 1 million gallons of retardant from Libby Air Tanker Base. It takes seven to 10 minutes for each plane to get loaded up.




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