Air tanker base for fighting wildfires coming to Austin airport

DC-10 tanker dropping retardant on Hidden Pines Fire
DC-10 tanker dropping retardant on Hidden Pines Fire. (Juan Salinas/KXAN News)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A portable air tanker base, capable of handling the large airplanes that drop fire retardant on wildfires, will be coming to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

State Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, says the move to establish the base follows a key recommendation from the Lost Pines Property Owners Fire Protection Task Force, a citizen committee affected by the Hidden Pines fire.

The armada of air tankers — or DC-10s — can lay a swath of red fire retardant a mile long and 300 feet wide onto a fire below.

“It can definitely make a difference, we use those to get ahead of what we can’t get to,” said Captain Robert Ortiz with the Pflugerville Fire Department.

The state previously had only one portable air tanker base, located in Abilene, capable of supporting the large tankers during wildfire events, forcing the state to rely on air bases as far away as Tennessee and Arizona.

“This tanker base represents a monumental advancement in wildfire preparedness for our area,” said Rep. Cyrier, whose district was hit hard by both the 2015 Hidden Pines fire and the 2011 Bastrop Complex fire, together burning 39,000 acres and destroying more than 1,700 homes.

Ortiz says the planes make a huge difference in lost time fighting fires where boots and trucks can’t get to.

“Once we request those, we aren’t waiting a day, we’re not waiting two days. It’s rather immediate,” Ortiz said.

Forest Service experiments show retardants can reduce fire intensity and spread up to twice as effectively as water. ABIA will house retardant in storage tanks, pumps to refuel the tankers and even a place for the pilots and crew to sleep.

“It’s also a little bit a part of the healing process for all of us that have gone through this and make sure that we’re better prepared in the future,” Cyrier said.

The citizens committee, Texas A&M Forest Service, Austin Fire Department, ABIA and the representative worked to bring the tanker base. Real estate and tarmac space at ABIA will be made available for the base, which is expected to increase the speed of fighting large wildfires.

The base will be unveiled on Thursday, Feb. 16.

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