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"Castle Airport inks fire-fighting deal with U.S. Forest Service"

Friday, August 30, 2013

Castle Airport inks fire-fighting deal with U.S. Forest Service
The Merced (CA) Star

The U.S. Forest Service entered into a five-year contract - ushered in by
the massive Rim fire in Stanislaus National Forest - with Merced County for
use of Castle Airport in Atwater.

Flight and ground crews hit the ground running Tuesday, their first day at
Castle Airport, as they filled air tankers with flame retardant.

The blaze has spread to 192,466 acres, making it the sixth-largest fire in
California history.

Dave Campodonico, the air tanker base manager, said Castle Airport was a
practical choice for a Forest Service location. The base can handle the size
and weight of a DC-10.

"We have, kind of, a tanker-base system with different airports," he said,
adding the next closest are in Fresno and Stockton.

Campodonico said the Forest Service and Merced County had been in
discussions for some time, and the Rim fire sped up the process.

Ideally, Castle will handle the largest tankers, the DC-10, while other
bases can load the others, like the C-130.

When a fire is not burning, the Castle Airport base's crew will not be
stationed there on a daily basis, Campodonico said, but the site will be
used depending on fire proximity.

Campodonico said the most vulnerable points needing protection right now are
the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Tuolumne City and a number of smaller

"We pounded a lot of retardant to protect these areas," Campodonico said,
adding retardant allows firefigher crews to get in to squash the flames.

The steepness of the canyon where the fire started made fighting the flames
difficult. "It's almost vertical. It's almost a cliff," Campodonico said.

The Rim fire has destroyed 111 structures, including 31 homes, and posed a
threat to giant sequoias. More than 4,500 firefighters are battling the

Cameron Jones, assistant base manager for the Forest Service at Castle, said
each day's needs are different, but air tanker pilots begin their runs in
the early afternoon and continue until 30 minutes before sundown.

The air tankers can carry about 11,600 gallons of medium-viscosity retardant
to the Rim fire, Jones said, and the base turns them around about every 40
minutes. So, they make five or six trips a day.

The Rim fire started Aug. 17 and quickly exploded in size. Its progression
slowed earlier this week when it moved from parts of the forest with thick
underbrush that had not burned in nearly a century to areas that had seen
fire in the past two decades.

But it will likely burn for months, possibly until California's dry season
ends this fall.

"My prediction is it will burn until we see rain," said Hugh Safford, a
regional ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

That means the smoke could continue to foul air north of Yosemite in the
Lake Tahoe basin and neighboring Nevada.

The Merced County Department of Public Health released a smoke and air
quality warning for residents on Wednesday.

"Wildfire smoke has harmful chemicals that can affect your health," Public
Health Director Kathleen Grassi said in a news release. "It can cause eye
and throat irritation, coughing, and difficulty breathing.

It can also exacerbate the symptoms of asthma.

Grassi said residents who smell or see smoke should minimize or stop outdoor
activities, especially exercise, and stay indoors with windows and doors

People at the greatest risk of symptoms associated with wildfire smoke are
those with respiratory disease or heart disease, young children and older
adults, the release stated.

Anyone with chronic health conditions should closely monitor their health,
and should seek medical help if symptoms are persistent or worsen, the
release stated.

Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development
for Merced County, said county and Forest Service officials had been in
discussions for years about using Castle Airport.

"We've been working with the U.S. Forest Service for quite some time, trying
to establish Castle as a place from which they could launch operations of
this nature, obviously for firefighting purposes," he said.

Under the agreement, Merced County will charge the Forest Service through a
series of fees: $225 per month for the 5,200-square-foot building lease,
$450 per day for the 551,600-square-foot ramp and 50 cents per 1,000 pounds
a plane weighs upon landing, according to county staff.

The county will also charge for the use of water and utilities.

Fighting the fire shows off Castle Airport's ability to handle large jets,
Hendrickson said, and be a cog in the public-safety machine.

"Anytime that you have an airport able to exercise its capabilities, it's a
good marketing tool for future opportunities," Hendrickson said.

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