BLM considers closing Minden Fire Tanker base | RecordCourier.com

BLM considers closing Minden Fire Tanker base

by Susie Vasquez

Budget cuts could mean Minden-Tahoe Airport’s air tanker base will be moved to Reno Stead Airport by the next fire season. Critical to providing a timely response to wildfires, both bases are operated by the Bureau of Land Management.

Should the base move, response times on the Sierra Front could increase significantly and firefighters would lose that first critical hour, according to Kevin Johnson, Minden Air Attack base manager for the bureau.

If a fire isn’t stopped in the first hour it usually accelerates out of control, he said.

Single-engine aircraft have been effective as a first response to wildfires, but air tankers are still critical to the effort, said Airport Manager Jim Braswell.

“It’s the difference between landing at a base 5 minutes away and landing 20 minutes away,” he said. “If we don’t have the capability to recharge large tankers and we have another Waterfall fire, Lord help us all.”

Speaking to members of the Airport Advisory Committee on Wednesday, Johnson said politics plays a critical role, but money is the bottom line. The Stead base is more efficient for the bureau because they own it. The Minden base is owned by the Nevada Division of Forestry.

“The hammer drops when it comes to funding and the public pays the price, but the public can also turn this around pretty quickly,” Johnson said. “Talk to your congressmen. That’s the way we’ll get things done.”

Airport Advisory committee member Mike Bradford said the closure would impair response times at Lake Tahoe, where a major fire would devastate both the environment and the economy.

“A major fire could destroy the water quality there for decades,” he said. “Reducing the immediacy of an air tanker response is something everyone recognizes as a very real loss. There is a real interest in working with BLM to maintain the close proximity of the air tanker base and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.”

Many entities, including the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, U.S. Forest Service, Lahontan Regional Water District and Nevada Department of Environmental Protection have a stake, he said.

The Bureau’s budget was cut 5 percent this year and will be reduced another five to10 percent in 2007. If the latter becomes a reality, they cannot afford to maintain a minimum of four employees needed to maintain staffing levels at Minden-Tahoe and adhere to policy, Johnson said.

The shortfall stands at $98,000 to fully staff both Minden and Stead as heavy air tanker bases. Under the second option, the shortfall could be reduced to $68,000 and Minden would still have one single-engine aircraft. Fire-fighting planes would be supplied by other sources, including carriers from the California Department. of Forestry in Columbia, Calif. and Nevada Division of Forestry helicopters

The third option, which would remove the air base, would mean only Nevada Division of Forestry helicopters would remain in place. Single-engine planes used for fire fighting could still reload at Minden, but air tankers would have to go to Stead.

Other entities at the Minden base, including the Forest Service and Nevada Division of Forestry, are facing similar cuts, Johnson said.

Bradford said the $98,000 shortfall doesn’t compare to the cost of even one home and it’s nothing, when compared to the loss of water quality at Lake Tahoe.

In addition to the tanker base, Minden-Tahoe Airport is home to the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center. The Nevada Division of Forestry maintains three fire-fighting helicopters, Braswell said.

Susie Vasquez can be reached at svasquez@recordcourier.com or 782-5121, ext. 211.