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Moses Lake crew fights fires by air

Area wildfires cause surge in retardant use

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Posted: Monday, October 1, 2012 9:05 am

MOSES LAKE - An increase of fire activity in Central Washington has led to a similar increase in local fire fighting efforts.

Robert Meade, base manager of the Moses Lake Air Tanker Base, said a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to ensure planes are continuously ready to help fight fires.

The Moses Lake base contracts privately owned planes to fight fires in the immediate area. The base also uses a fleet of federally-funded tankers during the fire season.

The planes that move in and out of the base can carry anywhere from 2,000 gallons of fire retardant to about 10,000 gallons, Meade said.

Planes move from the East Coast across the country as summer progresses, Meade said. Based on patterns from previous fires seasons, the planes are sent to bases depending on the anticipated needs of the area.

The Moses Lake base is typically open from June 10 to October 27, when fire activity in this area is at its peak.

Meade said that in 2001, the first year the base operated out of Moses Lake, pilots used 826,000 gallons of retardant to fight fires that season. The base was previously located in Wenatchee, but since the Port of Moses Lake upgraded its facilities, operations moved to Moses Lake.

Meade's first year on base in 2003, pilots used about 350,000 gallons, he said.

With the increase in fire activity this season, Meade said the base has sent out a record amount of retardant to fires in the area. Since Sept. 10, when the most recent fire spurt started, Meade said more than 300,000 gallons have gone out on planes.

Planes have gone out to the fires in Wenatchee, Yakima and Table Mountain, he said.

"We're up to 589,000 gallons this year so far," he said. "Last year we did 30,000 gallons."

Meade said that during the height of fire activity this year, the base had five tankers running retardant out to the fires. Nearly 53,000 gallons went out during their busiest day alone, he said.

Planes started flying out at 11 a.m., and ran steady until about 7 p.m. Normally, the base averages about 19 loads a day, but that day, Meade said they ran about 26 loads.

However, Meade said that since fire activity in the area has slowed down, most of the tankers have moved on to other areas in the Northwest.

Two planes contracted from Canada still sit on the runway, he said. Meade said they are flight ready, and can be loaded with retardant and given the OK to fly in about seven to eight minutes.

"They've been sitting because there isn't a need at the present time," Meade said. "But they're always ready."

Meade runs the base along with an assistant and two students from the aviation program at Big Bend Community College.

Meade said his crew and the pilots who fly the planes work hard to make sure the crews out fighting fires on the ground can count on them to help contain the fires.

"The goal is to get them in and out as efficiently and safely as possible," Meade said. "They've got a tough job that a lot of the public doesn't realize."

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