SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to get the White House to resolve a dispute between the county and U.S. Forest Service over landing air tankers at the Ramona Airport to aid in firefighting efforts.
The next-generation aerial tankers are based in San Bernardino, where they land and reload with 3,000 gallons of fire retardant to aid with firefighting efforts across Southern California. The federal agency has Brown Municipal Airport listed as an alternative.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Chairman Bill Horn will appeal to President Barack Obama's administration to allow at least one of the Forest Service's 22 aircraft to operate out of Ramona during San Diego County's wildfire season.
"If the Forest Service doesn’t get it by now, then the President can order the Forest Service to do the right thing," said Jacob.
"We’re saying use Ramona to reload these planes which will give us about 8 more drops per day, per aircraft," said Horn.
The supervisors said aircraft based in San Bernardino take longer to reach wildfires in the San Diego region, potentially contributing to loss of property or life.
According to Horn and Jacob, Ramona already has infrastructure to supply retardant and fuel to the aircraft because it's a major base for Cal Fire aircraft. The runways are long enough and strong enough to accommodate the USFS planes, the two supervisors said.
The federal agency disagrees, citing Ramona's runway is too short. In order for the aircraft to accommodate, planes would have to operate at less capacity. It said "operating at less than full payload is not cost effective for air tanker."
It also said Brown Municipal Airport, 40 miles south of Ramona has a 8,000 foot runway that can safely and effectively support air tanker operations when San Bernardino is not the appropriate choice.
Jacob said it's unusual for the supervisors to appeal to the White House, but the Forest Service isn't budging on the issue.
"We need to make it loud and clear to the federal government that these air tankers could save lives and property,'' Jacob said. "We need to spur the federal government to bolster our firefighting capabilities.''
The supervisors said the aircraft don't need to be based in Ramona, just authorized to take off and land at the airfield in the San Diego County foothills, which fire experts said would allow for each tanker to make eight additional drops per day on fires in the region.
The Fire Chiefs Association and Cal Fire are both in support of hosting an air tanker in Ramona, the supervisors said.
"Ramona is an acceptable base," said Tony Mecham, CalFire and San Diego County Fire Chief.
CalFire recently ran a recent test of a similar air tanker out of Ramona and found no problems.
"We feel the turnaround times in Ramona were more effective," said Mecham.
County staff will now compose a letter urging the Obama administration to take the steps necessary to allow the tankers to use the Ramona airfield, and provide copies to the Forest Service and local congressional delegation, among others.
"I mean the President is in charge he can make the decision," said Jacob.
Supervisor Bill Horn said he expects a response from the U.S. Forest Service within the next few weeks.