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Jesusita Fire turns up the heat on Santa Maria firebase debate 

The Jesusita Fire has focused concern on a recent U.S. Forest Service decision to move key firefighting operations from a base at Santa Maria Public Airport to Paso Robles.

The Forest Service recently moved management staff from the Santa Maria base and downgraded it from a full-service to a “call-when-needed” operation.

Some members of the public, including people displaced by the fire, have questioned whether the base’s downgraded status and an incomplete contract between the U.S. Forest Service and a fire retardant company hindered firefighting tactics during the first 24 hours of the blaze.

Jim Kunkle, owner and president of Central Coast Jet Center, said the base was up and running the morning of the fire. Right after the fire started, the base was able to supply three Cal Fire airplanes with fuel and retardant.

“We got them relaunched to go back to the fire,” Kunkle said. “But shortly after the last plane flew off, we were notified by a U.S. Forest Service representative that we had to stop.”

The base had to shut down because the service had yet to finalize a contract with its fire retardant supplier. Normally, the contract is only in effect from May 15 to Nov. 15. The Forest Service had to push through an emergency contract to start pumping from the base.

However, Andrew Madsen, public communications specialist for Los Padres National Forest, said the halt didn’t impede the Forest Service’s ability to fight the fire.

“To link the burning fire with the base is Santa Maria is wrong,” Madsen said. “It’s completely inaccurate, and it’s incendiary to people who were victims of the fire.”

The Santa Maria firebase, he said, was “up and running” within the required amount of time, that is, the first 24 hours of the fire. Before that time period ended, the planes carrying fire retardant couldn’t have been used anyway, he explained, because the 100-acre fire was burning in a location inaccessible to on-ground firefighting forces.

“Air support must be used in conjunction with firefighting from the ground,” Madsen said. “Fire retardant drops must be followed immediately by fire fighting from the ground or else they’re moot.”

And after the first 24 hours, Madsen added, the planes still couldn’t be used because of high-speed winds.

“Thirty- to 40 mph winds will ground aircraft every single time,” he said. “Without the winds, that fire wouldn’t have done anything.”

When asked why the Forest Service didn’t have its contract finalized sooner, Madsen said: “Even if we did, it would have been set for [fire season] May 15 to Nov. 15, so we would have had to set up an emergency contract anyway.”

Still, some community members are using the glitch as an example of why the Santa Maria firebase should be restored to full-time status.

“It’s unfortunate what happened, but it validates the need and the ability of the Santa Maria firebase to support an initial fire attack,” Central Coast Jet Center’s Kunkle said.

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