By Mary O’KEEFE
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has canceled a three-year contract with a company that provides firefighting water dropping planes.
“It was a surprise. We knew there were budget negotiations going on but we thought we had survived the cuts,” said Rick Hatton, president and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier.
The company provided DC-10 aircraft. Each aircraft holding 12,000 gallons of fire retardant.
The company began working with CAL FIRE in 2006 with a “try it if you like it” program. The first fire they flew was the Sawtooth Fire in San Bernardino County; by the end of that season they had flown over 26 fires.
“Then we were given a three-year contract, with a renewal of another three-years in 2009,” he said.
The contract is $21 million, $7 million per year. Hatton admits the costs of flying the big super tankers are not cheap but its worth outweighs its cost.
The planes are called in to keep a small fire from growing larger.
“When a fire gets too big it costs a lot more money to contain it,” Hatton said. “It seems penny wise and pound foolish.”
Tony Morris, founder of Wildfire Research Network in Topanga, agreed with Hatton about the importance of keeping his planes under contract.
He, too, said he understood that California is facing difficult economic times and that there has to be some cuts in the budget but, like Hatton, is concerned the savings from canceling the contract will end up costing more money for the state during another devastating wild fire.
“There are certain things you just don’t cancel,” he said. “This plane has saved lives.”
Neither Morris nor Hatton blame CAL FIRE for their decision. Both praised the agency for its support in the past.
“This is not a cut we are happy with,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for CAL FIRE. “This was the best choice among the alternatives.”
He added the agency works hard in the initial attack on fires and the state continues to have the largest firefighting force in the country.
CAL FIRE has over 50 aircraft to fight fires, however the DC-10s offered by Hatton’s company has a 10 times higher capacity than those planes.
The importance of super tanker planes is something many Crescenta Valley residents understand even better since the Station Fire. The U.S. Forest Service is being investigated on its initial reaction to the fire including how and when water-dropping aircraft were ordered.
“We weren’t called until four days into the Station Fire,” Hatton said.
He is confident his planes could have made a difference in the duration of the fire if called earlier.
Steve Goldsworthy, member of the CV Fire Safe Council, said due to the Station Fire the area is at a lower risk of another devastating wild fire.
“I would be more worried about areas like Malibu and other areas where the brush hasn’t burned [in a while],” he said.
The DC-10s will be on a “call when needed basis,” however that means instead of the planes arriving in the normal 20 minutes, it will be closer to 24 hours.
“When we are on contract our crews are 200 yards away, like a fire station,” Hatton said.
Hatton has worked closely with CAL FIRE over the years to perfect the planes for firefighting. This has come at a great cost and the company now has to find a way to survive which could take them out of the state.
L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich has been a strong proponent of water dropping aircraft. He has announced that the L.A. County board of supervisors has authorized a contract to lease two CL-415 SuperScoopers fire-fighting aircraft from the government of Quebec for use by the L.A. County Fire Department.
“To ensure our County Fire Department has the tools they need to be fully prepared for fire season, these vital aircraft have been requested to supplement the Department’s water-dropping helicopters and other fire-suppression machinery,” said Antonovich.