Plans to expand the air tanker base at Santa Maria Public Airport announced Wednesday will allow the facility to reload two DC-10 retardant-dropping aircraft at the same time, improving firefighting capabilities for the Western United States.

An additional long-term fire retardant reloading point, known as Pit 4, will be created for the U.S. Forest Service Air Attack Base at the airport, said Chris Hastert, general manager for the Santa Maria Airport District.

“While Pit 4 is currently comprised of new, temporary equipment, plans are in place to install a permanent fire retardant mixing [and] loading facility, which will increase capacity, allow greater efficiency and ensure that we can accommodate simultaneously more than one of the largest aircraft in the Forest Service fleet, the DC-10,” Hastert said.

Officials didn’t say when the expansion would begin, how much it would cost, who would pay for it or when it might be completed. Hastert didn't respond to requests for more information by Thursday afternoon.

First established at the airport in 2007, the air tanker base has become a critical component in fighting wildfires and protecting residents not only on the Central Coast but also as far away as Arizona, Utah and Colorado, Hastert said.

In fact, he said, the air tanker base in Santa Maria often dispenses more retardant per fire season than most others in the country.

He credited the support and involvement of Congressman Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, and his staff in making the expansion possible.

“Climate change has created year-round wildfire seasons, so I’m glad the Forest Service sees the growing importance of a permanent air tanker facility for Santa Maria and the entire region,” Carbajal said. “Now more than ever, it is essential that we work to increase capacity for large and very large air tankers that have proven critical in the fight against fires.”

McDonnell Douglas DC-10s began flying from Santa Maria Public Airport in 2009 when one was used to battle the Jesusita fire in Mission Canyon.

But the airport became even more important for aerial firefighting when the main runway was extended to more than 8,000 feet in 2011, making it one of the few California firefighting bases to easily and safely accommodate DC-10s.

A DC-10 used to battle the Aspen fire in Sierra National Forest northeast of Fresno in 2013 flew a round-trip route from Santa Maria that was 100 miles shorter than from the base capable of handling DC-10s in San Bernardino.

DC-10s can carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant in three belly tanks that can be released individually or at the same time in 6 to 15 seconds.

Then it takes 15 to 20 minutes to reload one of the big planes and get it back in the air, so having a facility capable of handling two at once will increase the frequency of retardant drops not only from the DC-10s but also other fixed-wing aerial tankers under contract to the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire.

“Having the additional retardant pit will increase our ability to support firefighters on the ground and protect communities at risk from new wildfire starts across the Central Coast,” Los Padres National Forest Supervisor Kevin Elliott said.

In addition to the tanker base, the 2,577-acre airport with two runways provides facilities for Allegiant airline service and 200 general aviation aircraft. United Airlines plans to add service to Santa Maria in March.

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