We are all very much aware of how devastating the wildfires have been this past year. For many Californians tuning into the news, you often see the image of an air tanker or helicopter flying over fires dropping fire retardant to slow or stop the spread of these flames.
The 2017 wildfire season in California has been one of the worst in memory, and one of the most destructive on record. A confluence of circumstances, beginning with an unusually wet winter and spring, stimulating the growth of wildland vegetation, followed by the hottest California summer on record, has created a tinderbox at the ground level in the state’s wildlands.
While it seems like each year the state goes on alert for fire season, people may not realize the extent to which general aviation and our local airports play a crucial role in stopping the spread of these fires.
We have 16 air attack bases all throughout our state ready to respond to crisis as it happens, serving as the base of operation for planes and helicopters. It is the hard work of a small number of pilots and ground personnel that operate these air attack bases to support fighting wildfires in our state.
Since early October, Cal Fire has responded to more than 250 wildfires, at its peak we were battling 21 major wildfires that consumed over 210,000 acres. More than 8,000 buildings destroyed and damages expected to far surpass $1 billion. The impact of these wildfires will be felt for years and years.
With everything from California’s Fast Attacks Grumman S2 Air Tankers and Bell UH-1H Helicopters, the state contracts for VLAT’s (very large air tankers) DC-10, 747, BAE-146 to assist, it was all hands on-deck to combat these fires. Cal Fire has the largest aerial firefighting flee in the world, and we are proud of the work we do to protect our state.
But the work of tanker pilots like myself would not be possible without the robust network of about 3,100 airports nation-wide that can be called to action to respond to a wide variety of emergencies and natural disasters from winter storms, to earthquakes, to oil spills.
However, legislation being debated in Congress could threaten our network of airports and our ability to respond to wildfires and other disasters. A proposal in Congress to privatize the air traffic control system would transfer oversight of our air traffic control system over to an unelected board that is largely influenced by the major commercial airlines.
This unelected board made up of private interests would determine everything from the division of funding within the system, to taxes and fees, to access and provision of service.
Under our current system, oversight by our elected officials ensures that the public interest is protected. I worry about how much this board would value our national network of airports, which is critical to our national infrastructure and emergency preparedness. This includes 218 public-use airports in California that during a time of crisis can mean the difference between life and death.
These private interests would no doubt make their decisions based on what will benefit them, concentrating resources in only the largest airports. I am deeply troubled by this and fear it would constrict airports where we desperately need them for the safety and economic future of our communities.
Mike Venable Air Tanker Pilot and member of the California Fire Pilots Association.