Private contractors key to firefighting
Nearly two years ago, a flat tire on a trailer resulted in sparks where metal struck pavement. The sparks quickly developed into a wildfire that took nearly a week to control and, in the effort, saw 600 firefighters, five air tankers and six helicopters mustered to battle in what came to be known as the Red Rock Fire. It burned some 12,000 acres north of Reno near Hallelujah Junction.
The amassing of firefighters and equipment, including air tankers and helicopters, did not happen by accident. Calling the shots were federal personnel housed near the Minden airport at the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center.
The center, an effort of the Nevada Division of Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Forest Service, has jurisdiction to battle wildfires from Doyle, Calif., to Mono Lake, and from the eastern shores of Lake Tahoe to Austin and Tonopah.
Until three years ago, the Minden airport also served as a base for large air tankers, but budget contractions forced the federal agencies to consolidate tanker operations at the Reno Stead airport where it holds a long-term lease. At one time, certain federal agencies actually owned and operated some of the large air tankers. Today, the government no longer owns tankers but contracts with private companies such as Minden Air Corp., a 20-year-old company headquartered in Minden.
The aircraft used by these companies are constantly on the move. Recently, many were in use fighting a massive wildfire in west Texas.
Mark Struble, public affairs spokesman in Carson City for the BLM, says all the single-engine tankers used today are brought in on an on-call basis. “They are not paid to sit on the ground here if our fire danger doesn’t warrant it,” he says.
Shane Charley, a BLM aviation manager who oversees aircraft needs out of both Minden and Winnemucca, says a complex protocol to put aircraft into the battle against wildfire works well.
“If we need an air tanker in here and there are two vendors available, I have the authorization to choose what we call the best value for the government,” he says. “That means if we have used that same pilot before, even though he and the aircraft may be more expensive, we can order him because he has more local knowledge. And that is extremely important; we always prefer guys who have more experience.”
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