Airport used by firefighters |

Airport used by firefighters

Susan Wood, Tahoe Daily Tribune

With its city subsidy up in the air, the Lake Tahoe Airport turned into a necessary resource for Tahoe firefighting efforts, the Forest Service helibase manager said Friday.

“Where else would you set up eight aircraft?” John Greeno asked over the roar of the aircraft staged Friday morning.

The helitack team for the California Department of Forestry pulled out amid the fire’s containment, but eight Forest Service units remained to carry the weight.

Greeno and fire command pilot Bill Ramsey said the airport’s proximity to the Gondola Fire made a critical difference in battling a potential disaster.

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“We’re as close as you want a helibase to be,” Greeno said.

Landing in Minden would have added up to 30 precious minutes for maintenance, he added.

The helicopters, manned by crews from the Angeles, Plumas, El Dorado, Sierra, Stanislaus and San Bernardino national forest districts, carried up to 600-gallon buckets of water to the fire that erupted with winds last Wednesday afternoon.

The added labor drains chopper engines, which also require cleaning to continue to perform up to par. The airport made for an ideal staging area for cleaning, Greeno said.

Having a central place for the fuel trucks to gather, in addition to available airport fuel in a crunch, provides more help, the command post manager said.

The logistics of fighting fires also relies on concise communication, a method of operation by having a Federal Aviation Administration tower on hand.

The tower staff oversees the transponder codes, which are especially vital in tracking air traffic when there’s a temporary flight restriction in effect like the one established last week.

“If we didn’t have a tower here, we probably would order one. Otherwise, it’s too risky (to fly),” Greeno said. “And in the long run, it probably would cost the taxpayers more.”

FAA spokesman Jerry Snyder said the temporary tower staff may cost an estimated $16,000 over five days to man.

Addressing South Lake Tahoe’s $2 million-a-year budget shortfall, the city’s $600,000-a-year subsidy has prompted debate over whether to continue to invest in an airport with no commercial carrier service.

On July 16, the city plans to release a strategic action plan designed to promote the airport to regional jet service.

“I honestly think having an airport here has helped us respond to this fire fast,” Councilman Tom Davis said. “To me, it’s worth the subsidy.”

When asked whether firefighting agencies would consider picking up the tab for tower operation, CDF spokeswoman Karen Terrill said she’s unsure, adding she’s “unaware of an airport tower having an impact on flight operations.”

“The only time we use a tower is if we’re refueling at the airport. We fly out of airports without towers all the time,” Terrill said from her Sacramento office.

Barbara Robiskie, the Forest Service fire command center spokeswoman, said having an operational airport close by contributed greatly to the quick containment picture.

“You never know when the next fire is going to be,” she said.

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