An introduction to the Columbia Air Attack Base

CAL FIRE OV-10s at McClellan AFB March 17, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Motherlode website has an article about the CAL FIRE Air Attack Base at Columbia, California that is full of facts and statistics. The airport is east of San Francisco, about 40 miles northeast of Modesto (map). Here is an excerpt:


“Columbia, CA – The meters certainly run each time Columbia Air-Attack Base aircraft take to the skies, and this week units are in full response mode to an elevated drought-parched wildfire season, further intensified by triple-digit heat.

Ironically, just ahead of yesterday’s Big Creek Fire break out near Groveland, the Mother Lode’s first major wildfire this season, Clarke Broadcasting checked in with Columbia Air Attack Base Battalion Chief Frank Podesta about how the season is going so far. At the time, he indicated an air tanker was actively assisting the Willow Fire, southeast of Bass Lake, in Madera County, and personnel had earlier provided back up on the Lowell Fire, west of Alta, in Nevada and Placer counties.

“It’s a fire season that we had expected with the dryness and severity of the drought,” Chief Podesta remarks, a bit grimly. He adds, “Fortunately, we are getting on top of them as quickly as possible.”

Crunching Columbia Air-Attack Numbers

With so many of the base aircraft out and about, we asked how much it might cost to run those units. The chief was happy to provide some numbers to crunch. First of all, fire retardant, according to Podesta, runs $2.94/gallon for the first 100,000 gallons; $2.13 after that. As the base drops somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 gallons per year on average, the cost for that line item runs somewhere between $933,000 and $1.4 million. By the way, he estimates, as of yesterday, the unit is “real close” to hitting that 100,000-gallon benchmark.

Built into the hourly rate for each aircraft type are their related firefighting costs, Podesta explains. Each of the two tankers, 82 and 83, cost $2,649/hour to operate and spend 180 to 200 hours in service per year. Subsequently, the average cost to operate both normally runs between $953,640 and $1,165,560 per year. At $743/hour, the Air Attack control or “spotter” plane, in use 250 to 300 hours per year, costs between $185,750 and $222,900. The unit helicopter, at $1,582/hour, which chalks up between 150 to 200 service hours per year, totals between $237,300 and $316,400.

So, annual firefighting costs, considering the above operational aircraft and fire retardant numbers, roughly ranges between $2.3 and $3.1 million per year…”


Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Troy.

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