Austin-Bergstrom air tanker base now operational

The planes started arriving last week and by Wednesday morning, three air tankers were rolling on the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. 

A fourth has already worked a fire fighting mission near San Angelo. It's an example of why this location, according to Air Base manager Jeremy Wagner, is important.

"The flight leg to that fire is about 45 minutes, and 45 minutes back so if this tanker was coming out of state you are looking at from anywhere two plus hours to get to it one way," said Wagner.

The Austin-Bergstrom tanker base has a ground crew of ten, but that number could increase. The job is to mix and load fire retardant as quickly as possible, which Wagner says is like a choreographed dance.

"It has to be because there are a lot of moving parts and whenever you involve aircraft this size," said Wagner.

The Texas A&M Forest Service has assembled a fleet of 25 aircraft. Austin is the largest of several fire response bases activated in Texas. Abilene also has a large capacity base. The other bases, which are mostly staged with helicopters and small planes, are located in Childress, Eastland, Fredericksburg, San Angelo, and Smithville.

There is the possibility one of the four tankers at Austin-Bergstrom will be moved to California in anticipation of a possible outbreak on the west coast. Wagner said the base in Austin will remain operational until the fire threat in Texas diminishes, which could come with the fall rains.

Outbreaks of major fires in Bastrop County prompted the state legislature to appropriate money for a portable air tanker base. The funding expanded the forest service's air support strategy as part of its new Texas Wildfire Protection Plan.

"Our highest risk area for home loss is along the I-35 corridor, that's where we have these high risk fuel beds with a lot of house and when you are dealing with vegetation like juniper, a heavy juniper canopy, some of our smaller aircraft can't penetrate the canopy as well," said spokesperson Logan Scherschel.

The base at Austin-Bergstrom is also large enough to service the big DC-10 air tankers. One, based out of Chattanooga, Tenn., was used during the Hidden Pines fire. The long trips limited the number of drops.

The tanker teams are from the Northwest, but this is not the first trip to Texas for several of the crew members.

This is the ninth fire season for Gerrel Storrud. He flew missions during the Bastrop complex fires. The flight plans then are no different to those now: each drop must be, low, slow and tactical.

"We usually drop about 150 feet, and we can go as slow as 120, 120 knots, so she is a pretty slow aircraft, but you've got to nail those airspeeds right because we are coming in at about 88,000 for the drop and then dropping 27,000 pounds of retardant which is equivalent to 3,000 gallons," said Storrud.  

These missions can be a rollercoaster ride with the Texas heat as the wild card, making every flight in the Lone Star state unique, says Storrud.