(Originally published in the Silver City Daily Press. Part of a series of articles on wildfires which led to a New Mexico Press Association award for Continuing Coverage. The accompanying photographs garnered an NMPA award for Photo Series.)
With a thunderous roar pulsing from its four engines, the P3 airtanker taxis and prepares to take on more than 2,500 gallons of fire retardant.
The plane has just returned to the Grant County Airport, where it and three other slurry bombers are based in the fight against wildfires in the Gila National Forest. The airport also serves as one of 11 regional fire caches in the United States; it is the principal supply source for wildland firefighting in New Mexico, as well as parts of Arizona and Texas.
Through Friday, the cache had shipped some $5,693,000 worth of supplies and equipment to the 1,835 firefighters in southwest New Mexico. The cache inventory includes everything from the clothes firefighters wear to floodlights and generators.
According to Alex Tovar, cache floor manager, the 10,500-square-foot warehouse at the site maintains a year-round supply of equipment. When a fire is detected, base personnel ship materials to firefighters.
“We supply all the camp items for firefighters,” he said. “That includes shirts, pants, tools, hoses, generators, backpacks, tents and sleeping bags.”
Dottie Clark, deputy cache administrator, said each item is tracked when it leaves, and those supplies are organized into kits.
“A coffee kit, for example, will include the coffee, cups, filters, sugar, urn and propane â€” everything they need to make coffee,” she said.
Rather than listing each individual item on an invoice, Clark said, the kits help staff organize the items and make tracking simpler. If the cache begins running low on a particular item, one of the other caches will step up and bolster the inventory.
To date, four personnel from the Northern Rockies Area fire cache have arrived to assist, and more than $2.8 million in materials has been shipped to Grant County. Included in that figure are close to 100 one-ton bins containing the powdered base for fire retardant. It contains a “proprietary mix” of ammonium sulfates, ammonium phosphates and guar gum.
Buck Gomez, air base manager, said each bin costs more than $1,300, and the powder inside is mixed with about 1,667 gallons of water. The retardant is tested for consistency before it is loaded into one of the four airtankers.
Two P3 tankers and two P2V aircraft are based at the Grant County Airport. Neptune Aviation, of Missoula, Mont., contracts the older, twin-engine P2Vs, while the larger P3s are operated by Aerounion Corp., of Chico, Calif.
As the P3, No. 22, taxis toward the runway, the orange paint on its fuselage stands out against the gray asphalt and blue sky. Gomez said the P3s can average about four trips per tank fighting the Bear Fire, with fuel and distance the limiting factors. About halfway through a typical 45-minute flight, a P3 will drop 2,550 gallons â€” about 11 tons â€” of retardant. The planes dump the mixture on unburned trees and structures, to create a line containing the fire. The P2Vs carry a smaller, nine-ton load, and must refuel after each trip.
When weather and smoke conditions permit, as they did Friday, crews fly for about 12 hours. That translates into about 10 sorties a day for the P3s, and about eight for the P2Vs. Each aircraft has a pilot and co-pilot, as well as a mechanic, and the crews work six days before taking one day off.
Four ground crew members mix and load the retardant and fuel the planes, while another supervises ramp operations. A dispatcher coordinates the action. Gomez said the airport also serves as a base of operations for heli-tankers and other
helicopters fighting area fires, and air-attack aircraft. Personnel in the smaller planes loiter over the fire area, communicating with observers on the ground and with the slurry bombers and helicopters in the air.
The operation is coordinated with more than a dozen federal agencies, along with state and local resources. The fire cache system is just one piece of a logistical network designed to get the closest adequate resources to a fire or other emergency. Personnel and air assets are also sent to the scene of a fire.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman in March called on the Forest Service to build a new cache facility at the airport. He also wrote letters to the Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations, asking it to build a new fire cache for Silver City.
“We’ve been trying for a couple years to get the Bush administration to set aside funding to build a new fire cache in Grant County, but so far they haven’t been willing to make this a priority,” Bingaman said. “The Bear Fire demonstrates the dramatic need for a new cache that would make it more efficient and cost-effective to fight blazes in this
part of our state.
Aside from fires, the cache also responds with supplies during other natural disasters. After hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast last year, the cache mobilized in support.
The Skates, Reserve Complex and Bear firefighters from across the country have started returning to their homes, or are being sent to other fires in other states. When they leave, the equipment they were issued will be processed at the cache, with usable materials cleaned, sanitized and refurbished. When a kit or other item is shipped to a unit in the field, that unit becomes responsible financially. It is then credited for returning supplies.
Tovar said cache personnel clean tents, evaluate fire hoses and gather clothing to be laundered. Coffee kits are sorted, and are reconstituted from the remains of partially depleted ones. Many of the items are then boxed and placed back in the cache inventory.
As of Friday, about half of the materials shipped by the cache had been returned. Clark said its inventory was valued at $2.9 million, ready to be sent again should the need arise.