Air tanker was set to leave on day of fires

An air tanker stationed in Medford was preparing to return to its home base in Redmond just as the Siskiyou Fire started near Ashland on Sept. 21.

"Its engines were warming up," said Dan Thorpe, district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District.

Redmond is north of Bend in Central Oregon.

Instead of going to Redmond, the air tanker stayed to help fight the 190-acre Siskiyou Fire and the 633-acre Deer Ridge Fire, which burned on the edge of Medford. Both fires started Sept. 21 and fire crews credited the tanker attacks with helping to contain the fires and minimize property damage.

An air tanker takes 42 minutes to fly from Redmond to the Rogue Valley, according to a representative from Redmond-based Butler Aircraft Company.

An air tanker taking off from Medford can reach an Ashland or Medford fire within eight to 10 minutes, the Butler Aircraft representative said. A tanker needs part of that flight time to gain elevation, Thorpe said.

ODF had a 75-day contract with Butler Aircraft for the air tanker. The plane arrived in Medford in mid July. ODF doesn't have enough money to have an air tanker available here year round, Thorpe said.

"We try to pick the best 75 days," he said.

ODF also contracts with Butler Aircraft for a second air tanker that remains based in Redmond, Thorpe said. The contracts' start dates are staggered to extend the period when ODF has tankers available, he said.

The Redmond-based tanker flew down to join the tanker stationed in Medford for the Siskiyou and Deer Ridge Fires, the Butler Aircraft representative said.

Thorpe said air tankers can play a critical role in firefighting. Pilots drop retardant in successive lines to create fire lines that often knock wildfires from tree tops back down to the ground.

That creates a safer situation for ground crews, who can get closer to battle the blaze, he said.

"We use air tankers on maybe 5 percent of fires. They're one of our most important tools. When you do need it, you really, really need it. It's an expensive tool, but extremely effective," Thorpe said.

One air tanker with pilots costs $7,110 per day to remain on stand-by. When an air tanker flies, it costs $3,636 per hour plus landing fees and other miscellaneous charges. The cost for one 3,000-gallon load of retardant is about $3,000, Thorpe said.

Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns said it's common for agencies to contract for air tankers for limited periods of time.

Karns worked for a fire department in southern California before he was hired to become Ashland's fire chief this year.

He said Los Angeles County contracts for the Canadian Super Scoopers for a few months each year.

"We were always sorry to see them fly away," Karns said.

Thorpe said it was fortunate that the Butler Aircraft air tanker was still in Medford on the day the Siskiyou and Deer Ridge fires broke out.

But perhaps more important was the fact that the Rogue Valley still has the Medford Airtanker Base, he said.

The U.S. Forest Service had proposed closing the base and shifting air tanker resources to Klamath Falls. After an outcry from locals, Jackson County commissioners and Oregon's congressional delegation, the Forest Service announced in 2002 that it would not close the base.

An extra 30 minutes would have been added to the round-trip flight time of an air tanker that had to fly from the Rogue Valley to Klamath Falls to get another load of retardant, Thorpe said.

"Having a base in Medford kept both fires smaller. Smaller equals less cost, less damage, less damage to houses and fewer evacuations," he said.

Without the local air tanker base, the fires probably would have burned longer, which would have necessitated more of the costly air tanker flights and retardant drops, Thorpe said.

The Siskiyou Fire burned one house. No houses were destroyed by the Deer Ridge Fire.

ODF protects U.S. Bureau of Land Management, state, county and private land from wildfire.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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