10:07 PM PDT on Wednesday, July 6, 2011

By RICHARD BROOKS
The Press-Enterprise

Special Section: Inland Wildfires

Just as Southern California’s wildfire danger is heating up, the state budget axe has cut the contract for the nation’s largest air tanker, Cal Fire and company officials said.

“I was notified verbally on June 30,” said Rick Hatton, CEO of the firm that owns and operates the Victorville-based DC-10 and a backup sister ship. “We thought we had passed the last cut in the budget.”

Instead, the three-year pact — which would have paid $7 million for each 120-day fire season — appears dead, though a similar cancellation in 2009 was reinstated, Hatton said.

“It’s penny-wise and pound foolish to cut this thing,” Hatton argued. “One big fire … probably costs 10 times as much as having this thing on for the whole season.”

Hatton’s 10 Tanker Air Carrier owns and operates two DC-10 jetliners-turned-firefighters, both based at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. The contract called for either plane to be ready to take off within 30 minutes. Hatton kept the second plane as a spare or to provide extra capacity for large fires.

The supertankers each can carry nearly 12,000 gallons of fire retardant. By comparison, that’s 10 times the capacity of Cal Fire’s 23 twin-engine Grumman S-2T trackers and at least four times the capacity of the U.S. Forest Service’s 19 large air tankers.

An even larger airplane — a 20,000-gallon modified Boeing 747 — is available but has no seasonal contract with the U.S. Forest Service, California or any other state.

At least temporarily, Hatton’s big jets still are available on a call-when-needed basis — with up to 24 hours of preparation time — which is the same sort of contract that the state uses for large water-dropping helicopters.

But Hatton said he’ll permanently ground both DC-10s and put them in storage unless the seasonal contract is reinstated or he can find another state or nation willing to hire them.

“Call-when-needed (contracts) may work for helicopters and smaller aircraft with alternative uses, but it will not sustain a … a single-purpose large tanker,” Hatton wrote Sunday to Andy Murray, Cal Fire’s chief of fire protection. “Simply put, when the phone rings, the (DC-10) provider will have gone elsewhere.

“This is not a threat. It is an economic imperative.”

Cal Fire has no wiggle room, its officials said.

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