Monday, June 16, 2014

Fire-fighting planes needed in Ruidoso; Village is ranked on top for danger of catastrophic wildfire

Some aerial fire-fighting equipment should be stationed at Ruidoso's municipal airport during fire season, not 75 miles away in Roswell, village officials contend.

Fire Chief Harlan Vincent will participate in a conference call today with officials from the Bureau of Land Management and possibly the U.S. Forest Service to discuss reassigning one or more single engine air tankers to Sierra Blanca Regional Airport.

"There may be a cost associated with transferring them here," Vincent said Monday. "The BLM owns the assets, but they are stationed based on a national-level assignment with contracts. We're working real hard to see some based here, including Mayor (Tom) Battin and (U.S. Rep.) Steve Pearce."

At a Ruidoso Village Council meeting last week, Battin pointed out that the village has been fortunate a month into the fire season not to have seen a major wildfire spring up or threaten homes,

"One of things you've expressed concern about is the absence of fire-fighting aircraft at Sierra Blanca, and we have raised the issue with the state," the mayor told councilors. "When I look out there and don't see one of those planes, it really concerns me, but I think we're OK."

Vincent reported to the council that the fire-fighting planes are based in Roswell.

"Since the village of Ruidoso is ranked number one for (catastrophic wildfire risk) in New Mexico, it seems like we would take precedence over some place like Roswell," he said. He's been discussing the situation with the head fire dispatcher and the BLM's fire management officer in Roswell, asking that one or more planes be transferred to Ruidoso, "instead of having all the assets there."

Another reason for the transfer would be to allow proficiency training between firefighters and the pilots, Vincent said.

"It's not very often we get to do proficiency training with aircraft," he said. "We take our command and control supervisors out, then contact the airport and have the aircraft lift off. We make sure the air and ground frequencies correlate with each other and then we start talking to them. We give them our longitude and latitude, put bright pieces of plastic down and then see how proficient they are in locating us. We talk to them from the ground and see if they can hit some of that plastic. Last year we did some of that. It's nice to be able to train with then. Even if you don't use them for fire fighting, it's good for training."

Councilor Joseph Eby asked if officials from Mescalero paid any of the cost related to a SEAT being at the local airport last year. Vincent said they did not.

"I believe it was the county and the village, and the state picked up the remainder, the majority," Vincent said. The cost is about $2,000 a day whether or not a plane flies.

Vincent said the single-engine air tanker is called, "the little plane on steroids. They can fly a couple hundred miles an hour. It's about 75 miles from Roswell and they can be here in 15 minutes. I'd like to see the reverse, have them here and if they need them in Roswell, they could be there in just 15 minutes. But then I'm a little biased.