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Firefighting airplanes utilize Santa Maria Airport as a refueling base

Crucial support from the air is helping fight the Lake Fire as it continues to burn in Santa Barbara County.
Lake Fire, air drop, fire retardant, jet_Peter Brinkerhoff.jpg
Posted at 5:46 PM, Jul 08, 2024

As the Lake Fire continues to burn in the Los Padres National Forest, residents in the Santa Maria area have been hearing airplanes all weekend.

"I heard a lot of planes," said Orcutt resident Mary Martinez. "I assume they're for fire control. Every time we have a fire in the area, that happens.”

Firefighting aircraft have been dispatched to the Lake Fire, loaded with retardant and fuel by the Central Coast Jet Center at the Santa Maria Public Airport.

"We have about 60,000 gallons of storage of jet fuel. As soon as the fire starts, I start planning and we start ordering days in advance," said Chris Kunkle, Central Coast Jet Center owner.

With the fire so close to Santa Maria, planes can quickly return for more retardant.

”It's such a close fire. The turnarounds are like 12 minutes," Kunkle said.

Aircraft enthusiasts like Elijah Osegera and his grandmother, Delia, visited the airport on Monday to see the planes land and take off.

“We thought they were going to be here today, but we didn't see any," Osegera said.

In fact, Monday was a little quieter at the airport due to visibility concerns near the fire.

"We're not having a lot of wind event, which is good for the fire as far as you know, keeping it contained or under control," Kunkle explained. "But it's bad for the aircraft because it's keeping the smoke in the area where the aircraft can't get in there.”

Over the past three days, Kunkle says they’ve helped load numerous aircraft, with 10 just on the first day of the fire.

"It takes a lot, you know. [On} a normal day basis, we're not really ramped to do these kind of operations," he said. "So bringing in overtime employees and people that will just help, just all hands on deck to get things going.”

Kunkle says they are prepared to support any aircraft once visibility improves.