WASHINGTON – The head of the U.S. Forest Service said she is reluctant to overturn a policy that caused tanker planes to fly extra distances while fighting a California wildfire because the agency did not yet have a contract in place to use a nearby airport.
The tankers had to fly an additional 120 miles round trip to obtain supplies — delaying response to the fire, which burned 100 homes in Santa Barbara, forced more than 30,000 people to evacuate and torched more than 13 square miles.
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said the agency will review the specifics of the Santa Barbara blaze, but added that she would not want the agency to have year-round contracts with private companies to help fight wildfires.
“A permanent fire season? I hope we never get to that,” she told The Associated Press.
Setting up agreements to provide retardant and other supplies “is an expense of public money. We want to be mindful before we commit to anything,” Kimbell said.
At the same time, she acknowledged that global warming and other factors have led to longer fire seasons that now stretch well beyond mid-May to November.
“Fire season keeps expanding on both ends,” Kimbell said, adding that the length of the fire season is a key factor as officials set up contracts with private companies and airports to assist the government in what has become a billion-dollar-a-year battle against wildfires.
“We try to be prepared … should events occur, and we use the best data we have, but you’ll never have all the answers,” particularly when most contracts are signed a year in advance, Kimbell said.
Three aircraft were able to resupply once at an airfield in Santa Maria, Calif., 60 miles north of the blaze, but they were later diverted to another airport about 120 miles away after officials realized a supply contract wasn’t in place at the Santa Maria airport. State and federal officials say it’s impossible to know what effect the airport confusion had on efforts to stamp out the Santa Barbara blaze, but said that being able to land at Santa Maria would have saved time.
Planes made multiple trips to Porterville, Calif., last week before the Santa Maria airfield was opened to the aircraft on May 6, cutting the length of resupply missions in half. The Forest Service had not completed a contract, which usually runs from May 15 to Nov. 15, with two service providers at the airport, said spokesman Jason Kirchner.
The 8,700-acre Santa Barbara fire destroyed 78 homes and damaged 22 others, fire officials said. The week-old blaze was 80 percent contained as of Tuesday, with costs totaling more than $12.2 million.