March Mt. News
By Kathryn Reed
South Lake Tahoe officials are taking their cause to Washington. They want a firefighting helicopter stationed at Lake Tahoe Airport.
Mayor Mike Weber sent a letter to Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, last month requesting his help in getting the U.S. Forest Service to keep a rig at the South Lake Tahoe airport during fire season.
When Kathay Lovell was mayor during last summer’s Angora Fire, she sent a letter directly to the Forest Service. They said “no” to her request for a helicopter.
Ron Rogers, chief of staff for Doolittle, said the congressman has not decided if he will ask Congress to fund this item. Appropriations matters are often discussed throughout the summer, so a decision is not likely to be known for several months.
The local Forest Service office is not outright opposed to the idea, but said many questions first need to be answered.
“Which entity will own, manage, staff and maintain the aircraft? In order to be effective and available during fire season, the aircraft will require a fully equipped facility as well as an immediate on-site, on-duty shift of pilots in order to be available at a moment's notice,” said Rex Norman, Forest Service spokesman.
The city is not jumping on the bandwagon just because of the June 07 inferno that consumed about 3,100 acres and more than 250 homes. In 1960, the Forest Service and California Department of Forestry talked about putting a firefighting aircraft here. More recently, airport Director Rick Jenkins asked the Forest Service in 2000 for a helicopter. In 2004, he talked to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about the issue.
The city wants the Forest Service to fund the helicopter because 85 percent of the basin is owned by this agency.
“We could provide a base operation at no cost if the people who manage the forest could see a way to place a helicopter there as a way to do their job,” City Manager Dave Jinkens said.
Jinkens wants Congress to show how much the forest and environment in Lake Tahoe are worth by funding a firefighting helicopter to be used by the Forest Service.
Weber’s letter in part says, “Had a water dropping helicopter been immediately available when the fire was first reported, it may have prevented the fire from ever becoming the terrible disaster it rapidly became. … Although helicopter assets based outside the Basin may be able to reach the Basin within 15-20 minutes of flying time, they cannot reach the Basin with 15-20 minutes of notification.”
As with all Forest Service aircraft, they are used outside the jurisdiction they are headquartered in. So, even if a helicopter is stationed here, it’s not going to be here 100 percent of the time.
“It would be necessary to examine whether a helicopter stationed on the South Shore could or would be able to respond to a North Shore incident faster than those stationed outside the basin,” Norman said. “If winds are too severe to allow safe and effective use of a helicopter, such as was the case in the first hours of the Angora Fire, it's stationing in the basin as any kind of advantage, would be a moot point.”