When two types of air tankers were grounded this spring, firefighters nationwide had to deal with a 25 percent reduction of the entire fleet.
That isn't a good prospect, but here at the Brainerd air tanker base the problem was remedied by the arrival of a P3, an old military submarine hunter, the same type of plane the Chinese captured and held hostage several years ago.
"Normally we would have started the year with a smaller craft," said Keith Riedl, air tanker base manager. "But fire operations have been really different this year. Part of the reason is the crashes we had last year."
The crashes involved C130 and PB4Y aircraft. Today all of those planes have been taken out of service. Brainerd brought in a P3 from Chico, Calif. and another from Fort Smith, Ark. to deal with the immediate spring fire danger. Both have since moved on to other bases.
"The shortage of air tankers has made us change some things," said Riedl, who has managed the air tanker base for five years. "Instead of going out on a contract basis they now go out on an as-needed basis, which has its advantages and disadvantages. We didn't want to pay for them and have them just sit in the rain."
Fire danger has been reduced significantly in the area in recent weeks. Though its still dry overall, rain has been enough to lessen the fire danger. Trees and grasses have started greening.
"The greenup really effects what the fire danger is," Riedl said. "But if we don't get rain, sunshine and the wind will dry things out again."
Currently, the air tanker base has a helicopter and two CL215 water bombers, both manufactured by Bombardier. Four full-time people currently man the air tanker base, and supplemental personnel include pilots, drivers, mechanics and firefighting crews. Within minutes of a fire starting every available resource in the state can be rushed to Brainerd.
"The number of people we get varies according to who's available and what's going on elsewhere in the state," Riedl said. "Last year we brought in the National Guard when that big fire started near Barrows. They're a good tool to have except that you need them today and it's tomorrow before they come."
These are relatively slow days at the air tanker base, Riedl said. But it gives the crew time to take care of paperwork, maintain pumps and hoses and prepare the other equipment that needs to be ready to go when a fire starts.
"It's always a guessing game," Riedl said. "If it gets hot and dry again the powers that be might take a look at bringing back a P3. We have to weigh the costs of bringing them here and keeping them here. The week before last they guessed right. But sometimes you get it wrong."
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