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SWFP-SHELLEY-HUGULEY-18-WILDFIRE-OLTON.jpg Shelley E. Huguley
Olton Volunteer Fire Department responds to a grass fire in Lamb County in 2018.

Central Texas airtanker base activated to help fight wildfires

As rainfall deficits build statewide, the fire danger is increasing.

Increased wildfire activity statewide has prompted the Texas A&M Forest Service to open the Austin Airtanker Base at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Fire activity has increased recently, particularly in northwest Texas, Central Texas and the Cross Timbers region where hot and dry conditions persist and fuel loading is high. Critical fuel dryness is expanding across South Texas, the Hill Country and Rolling Plains as rainfall deficits continue to build across large portions of the state.

During periods of high fire activity, aviation resources are used to support suppression efforts on the ground, aiding in the protection of structures and other valuable resources. “This year, we’ve utilized helicopters and single engine air tankers for wildfire response in areas with increased wildfire activity,” said Cynthia Foster, Texas A&M Forest Service Planning and Preparedness department head. “However, we could have a large, intense fire at any time so we want to be prepared and have additional aircraft ready to respond.”

Opening the airtanker base allows for faster response times and greater cost efficiency when responding to wildfires across the state. “The airtanker’s speed is greater than that of a helicopter or single engine air tanker. These aircraft will be able to get anywhere in Texas in under one hour,” says George Martin, Air Operations Branch director. “An airtanker can drop a line of retardant in front of a subdivision of homes, slowing the spread of the fire and allowing ground units time to respond.”

The base is equipped to handle all aircraft in the national airtanker fleet, including those aircraft used to drop fire retardant during wildfires. The base will be manned by trained and qualified Texas A&M Forest Service, USDA Forest Service and Austin Fire Department firefighting personnel.

The Austin Airtanker Base is the first, state-funded portable airtanker base in Central Texas and is a result of the Texas A&M Forest Service Texas Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan, approved by state lawmakers in the 2013 legislative session, has granted the state more firefighters, additional equipment and the ability to move assets around the state as needed.

Texas A&M Forest Service does not own any aviation resources but instead uses federal aviation contracts through the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for all firefighting aircraft.

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