CDF considers moving air fleet

Six-fold rent increase, Hollister foot-dragging force state to
consider moving firefighting air base to Central Valley
CDF officials say the city of Hollister better quit

chasing rainbows,

as the local chief put it, or they risk losing the base that
sent 92 air missions to battle last week’s Croy Fire.
Six-fold rent increase, Hollister foot-dragging force state to consider moving firefighting air base to Central Valley

CDF officials say the city of Hollister better quit “chasing rainbows,” as the local chief put it, or they risk losing the base that sent 92 air missions to battle last week’s Croy Fire.

For the last three years, CDF officials say they’ve been trying to lay the groundwork for a new 10-acre base at the Hollister airport to attack regional wild land fires, but the city’s foot-dragging will delay the project by at least two years and mean millions of dollars in cost overruns.

And the city’s $92,000 a year asking price is simply too much, according to CDF Chief Reno DiTullio of the San Benito-Monterey Unit. It’s a six-fold increase that could force CDF to look out of the area for a new base, even though they agree no better location exists from a public safety standpoint.

“We will leave,” DiTullio said, “$92,000, it’s not reasonable.”

The city failed to send CDF an appraisal of the land by February, which has moved the expected completion date from 2003 to sometime in 2005, he said. While the city was not under contract to give CDF an appraisal by that date, the CDF made it clear state funding would be diverted to other projects if the city failed to come through. The missed deadline will increase building costs from $4.7 million to $8 million, DiTullio said.

Established in the 1960’s, the Hollister Air Attack Base covers a region spanning from Alameda to Merced to Carmel Valley to Santa Cruz. The CDF pays $15,600 yearly for more than an acre of space, according to City Manager George Lewis, and the lease is up next April.

The number of missions flown from the base fluctuates from year to year. Since June, when the state’s fiscal calendar began, firefighters have flown 196 missions. Firefighters flew 225 missions the previous fiscal year.

The idea of CDF moving somewhere else, such as Merced County – an idea they considered before making an initial commitment to Hollister – doesn’t sit well with Kim Dupont. Last year, a CDF air tanker, with two flurries of retardant, saved her hillside home from a grass fire just off Union Road with two flurries of retardant.

“Fire hydrants are few and far between in the countryside,” she said.

Dupont understands the city’s desire for money, but she also vividly remembers watching the grass fire race up a hillside toward her home. CDF officials say a move to Merced County would mean it could take air tankers 15 minutes to reach fires in the South Valley, compared with the six minutes it took on average to reach the Croy Fire.

“I would think safety issues are more important, because we have a lot of open space around here especially in South County,” Dupont said. “It was nice to see the plane fly over and know you were protected.”

But the man handling negotiations for the city, Deputy Public Works Director Lawrence Jackson, said it’s the CDF that’s being unreasonable. The CDF’s $25,000 a year offer to lease the land might suit the Central Valley, but not a place like Hollister that can get top dollar from private pilots for its acreage, he said.

“I made it clear to them the City of Hollister is not going to roll over and give 10 acres to the state,” Jackson said. “The airport pays its bills by leasing land.”

Jackson said the CDF unquestionably provides a valuable service, but the city needs to till revenue from the land. To this end, Jackson said “executive” hangers for private aircraft would produce a comparable amount of income to what the city is asking from the CDF. That’s when DiTullo accused the city of “chasing rainbows.”

Jackson also said he met with the CDF last September, but state officials wanted him to throw out the first appraisal on the land’s worth. Jackson said he would have the land appraised and get them an estimate, but on the city’s own timeline.

However, DiTullio said state officials couldn’t even get Jackson on the phone for months at a time and eventually complained to Lewis about Jackson’s conduct.

“None of the information, once Lawrence Jackson got involved, came back in a timely manner,” DiTullio said. “What it boiled down to was how much the city was going to get for the property.”

Jackson never denied failing to return CDF’s phone calls, but said he must deal with upward of 25 messages a day. Jackson said he handed a finished appraisal to the City Attorney’s Office last January, but they didn’t return a rough draft of the lease to him until August, he said. Jackson is responsible for sending the lease to the CDF, once it has been reviewed and approved by staff, but that hasn’t happened yet.

CDF officials say all they want is for the city to be reasonable so the project can move ahead. A new air base would increase firefighting efficiency by about 10 percent, according to CDF Capt. Jim Wilkins. The CDF now has three concrete pads to fuel and load aircraft with retardant, and it takes CDF crews about three minutes to get a plane into the sky, he said.

The new base would be designed with faster fuel and retardant pumps, and would include an extra loading pad. The new site would also have a generator – something lacking from the existing base.

Typically, CDF air tankers use around $100,000 in fuel each year, with most of it bought from the airport vendor, Wilkins said. The CDF spent more than $150,000 to mount the air offensive on the Croy Fire last week alone, including money for food, fuel, local lodging and landing fees, he said. In addition, 12 employees are kept on staff during the fire season.

“Personally, I’d like to see them stay,” said Councilman Brian Conroy, the new airport liaison. “I think it’s a good location for CDF and beneficial to the community.”

But Jackson is not alone in thinking the city should play tough with the state for better terms. While disagreeing with Jackson on a slew of other issues, Airport Advisory Commission Chairman Gordon Machado has sided with him on this one, and said the CDF is using typical negotiation tactics.

“This belongs to the citizens of Hollister so why should we pick up the tab for the rest of the citizens on the Central Coast?” he said. “We should get fair market value for the use of our land.”

However, County Supervisor Richard Scagliotti thinks city officials better stop playing with fire.

“The air attack base is one of the most important firefighting apparatuses we have,” he said. “When a fire starts, it draws no boundary lines. This is a gift from the state.”

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