Delivered quickly and on target, a drenching cascade of fire retardant chemicals can spell the difference between deliverance and destruction at the front of raging wildland fire.
The Tracy Avenue Fire, which began Friday east of Homer, is such a fire. By Monday, its leading edge had reached the Anchor River drainage, where it turned north away from populated areas at least for now. Firefighters know, however, that a simple shift of the wind could drive it across the river where it would threaten residential areas to the north.
The only tanker aircraft operating in Alaska made several retardant dumps Monday afternoon. That helped the battle on the ground. But to load, that tanker had to fly to Kenai.
A year ago, it might have circled south to Homer.
That was before the Alaska Division of Forestry, in an effort to save money and provide broader coverage to the entire state with limited resources, decided to pull a mobile retardant station out of its location at Homer Airport.
"We (the division) had to consolidate. We didn't want to get overextended," said Ric Plate, fire management officer for the Kenai-Kodiak area. "We wanted retardant bases that made sense, rather than having them all over the state. If cost weren't an issue, we would have had the personnel and equipment to run it (the Homer site)."
Cost and efficiency were central to the decision to close the Homer mobile station in favor of Kenai, said Lynn Wilcock, acting state fire management program manager stationed at Fort Wainwright.
"The ability to maintain staffing and operate mobile bases is a tough one," he said Tuesday.
Forestry was planning to have the ability by later this spring to establish a mobile site quickly anywhere one might be needed. The Tracy Avenue fire occurred so early in the season it caught the system unprepared. The components needed to activate mobile sites property the personnel, training and equipment were not yet ready.
"The last thing we want to do is try to put something together without the proper training," Wilcock said.
Once set up, a station needs just two or three people, depending on circumstances, to service a tanker with retardant. Chosen as the best location to handle the Kenai Peninsula and locations on the west side of Cook Inlet, Kenai Municiapal Airport now has the necessary infrastructure and trained personnel that make a tanker base work effectively, Wilcock said.
The demand for the only tanker has been intense. It was diverted from its first run on the Tracy Avenue Fire, which was consuming mostly grass and dead trees, to a fire actually threatening homes near Delta, before returning to make a few dumps near the Anchor River.
The state contracts for the tanker's services with a company out of British Columbia. A second tanker arrived Tuesday.
Timing played a role in when the tanker was used on the Tracy Avenue Fire. According to Plate, the tanker contract wasn't active until Sunday two days after the fire began.
The difference in flight time for a tanker between the fire site and either Homer or Kenai airports is relatively short. Whether it would have made much difference to the ongoing battle on the ground if a Homer mobile base were operating would be speculation, Plate said.
He also said it was a misconception that Homer was an active mobile site, even when the 5,000-gallon truck trailer and water tank were stationed there.
"The tanker base was never staffed," he said.
At its core, the decision to close the Homer site was a matter of efficient staffing. Maintaining a mobile site would have required at least two people.
"We would prefer to have more firefighters on the ground," said John See, regional fire management officer stationed in Palmer,
Though the Tracy Avenue Fire may have required somewhat more flight time, the savings realized by centralizing tanker-reloading operations to places like Kenai essentially allowed just that, he said.
"Retardant is a tool we use that must be supported on the ground," See said. "It doesn't put fires out. It basically buys you some time. It is so important to have firefighters on the ground."
See noted that it was forestry's intent to have mobile station components palletized and ready for transport to meet wildland fire threats.
The division would like to have more resources ready in Homer, Plate said, and has already increased staffing from two to four in the past few years. Located in an airport fire and rescue facility are two small water trucks with portable pumps and hand tools that provide initial attack capability for fires. The state also coordinates with local fire departments for early rapid response, Plate said.
By state law, the Division of Forestry is responsible for wildland fire suppression. Local fire companies are generally cut loose to return to their normal activities once the state has fully mobilized to a fire.
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