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Santa Maria Air Tanker Base adds new plane to firefighting arsenal

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Posted at 8:47 PM, Jun 24, 2022

Vegetation fires seem to be sparking every day, but a new addition to the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base is helping local fire agencies extinguish blazes quickly.

A new 3,000 gallon aircraft arrived at the base on Wednesday, and officials say it has already been in action.

"We are just getting started in terms of the fire year. The tanker base opened on May 15," said Alex Ihle, Air Tactical Group Supervisor.

Ihle says his team has to be ready at a moment's notice to respond to calls for nearby fires.

"We have mixers and loaders that get the airplanes the fire suppressant retardant that they carry to wildland fires," Ihle told KSBY, "All the pilots are on ready, standby and alert should a vegetation fire start. My pilot and I depart and basically have command and control over the air space over an incident.

He says the new air tanker at the base was immediately requested to help drop fire retardant over a massive 2,500-acre brush fire.

"Right on I5 at the Grapevine. it was called the Thunder Fire and it was a Kern County incident and we had both the air attack plane as well as multiple fixed and rotor wing aircrafts supporting that incident," Ihle said.

The Santa Maria Air Tanker base provides assistance to CAL FIRE San Luis Obispo, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, Los Padres National Forest, Ventura County, and Kern County.

As of Friday morning, officials with Kern County Fire say the Thunder Fire is approximately 75% contained with over 300 personnel on scene.

"It really takes that coordinated effort. These air resources provide invaluable intel as well," reflected Kern County Fire Public Information Officer Capt. Alex Freeborn. "They are not just making water and retardant drops. They are continuing to express and convey and communicate what they are seeing to those resources on the ground."

A new mobile retardant station was also added at the base last year, which Ihle says allows his fellow crew members to load the aircraft faster when they are called out to a fire. He adds that on a typical day, there are anywhere between 12 to 20 people staffed at the base, and when an air tanker is requested to fly over a fire, their team can get loaded up and off the ground in minutes to help put out flames.