Austin-Bergstrom tanker base gets brief break after busy week

As commercial airlines flew in and out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a single plane was parked at the firefighting tanker base near the cargo terminals. 

Monday was a maintenance day for those with the C-130. That work, according to base manager Jeremy Wagner, also provided the ground crew at the refueling station a much needed break.

“Yes sir today is a good day to catch your breath,” Wagner said. “Tanker 131 is going to be on a day off, so that gives us a chance to do maintenance on our plant, so we can grease our pumps, and refill our fuel tanks, and do all the important stuff that we need to sustain operations.”

When the base went operational last Tuesday, four aircraft were staged at Austin-Bergstrom. Since then, three have been moved, one to Abilene and the others to Wyoming and California. Before the reassignments, the tankers were busy. From Austin-Bergstrom, they have fought big fires in north and west Texas. 

Between Tuesday and Sunday, the Austin-Bergstrom team worked a total of nine fires. Those fires required 18 different flights and 64,000 gallons of retardant that had to be mixed, loaded and dumped. Wagner knows the next mission is just a phone call away

“Well, looking at the forecast, it looks like we’re in for some more triple-digit heat, so I expect us to probably pick up, and continue to pick up again, steadily, so we will be ready,” said Wagner.

An example of how quickly things can change happened later Monday afternoon. A medium-sized jet air tanker flew in. It was reloaded, refueled and took off for a fire south of Austin.

The tanker base was authorized after the massive fires in Bastrop County. The first mobile base a few years ago was set up near the air traffic control tower. The site is now in the Cargo area because of the new south terminal.

“It is a good fit, we want to be able to offer the forestry and Ranger service and the firefighter people another option to help folks in central Texas as far as fires are concerned, and we have the available space,” Austin-Bergstrom spokesperson Derick Hackett said. “Especially after experiencing the Bastrop fires, we got a little taste locally as to how devastating that can Bing it so this is went to city of Austin and the Austin airport can try to do to help folks who are experiencing that.”

The idea to set up a major tanker base at Austin-Bergstrom was not just about location. It was also about capacity, and that was tested on Friday. A DC-10 air tanker flew into Austin after making a drop Friday on fire near the town of Quanah in north Texas.

“He came out of Phoenix Gateway with a load, dropped on the Vivian Fire, and then came down here, was ready to fill up and drop again,” said Wagner.

Ten people are currently assigned to the base as the ground crew. If more fires flare up, bringing more aircraft, the number of those working at the base will also increase.