Local fire officials worry about Ramona Airport downgrade
County officials and many fire chiefs in San Diego County worry that the possible downgrade of Ramona Airport will affect the ability of local fire assets to respond to wildfires.
Sequestration is the process in which budgets, while not actually cut, will experience slower growth that had been planned.
Several County supervisors, joined by state and local fire chiefs, on Tuesday protested a federal government plan to shutter the Ramona Airport air control traffic tower starting next month due to sequestration.
They said the closure would jeopardize aerial firefighting in a region prone to wildfire. The East County airfield is the only facility in the area that can fully support Cal Fire tankers and other firefighting aircraft.
"Public safety is at stake," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district includes Ramona. "If the federal government closes the tower next month, Cal Fire's aerial capabilities would be put at risk."
The Federal Aviation Administration has said the tower is set to possibly close April 7 due to self-imposed budget cuts mandated by sequestration.
"When the rainy season ends in San Diego County, the fire season begins," said Supervisor Ron Roberts, who represents District 4. "The Ramona Airport control tower functions as an aerial fire fighting hub, for all of San Diego County. We don't need federal political foolishness jeopardizing people's lives and property."
Capt. Mike Mohler, a spokesman for Cal Fire, told The Roadrunner, "Cal Fire realizes there is safety concerns with a unstaffed tower at the Ramona airport but fire operations at Ramona will not stop we will continue to respond and fight fires. There are bases in the state that have unstaffed towers and we continue to operate. But as stated above it does increase safety concerns with airport operations."
The Cal Fire base responds to more than 400 calls a year. During major wildfires, up to 18 firefighting aircraft can operate out of Ramona. Their movements are coordinated by the control tower.
County and fire officials said that coordination at Ramona would end if the closure goes forward. Without controllers in the tower, no one would be available to perform vital air traffic functions, increasing the odds of a collision, they said.
The control tower was established after three people died in a 1995 aerial collision involving federal firefighting aircraft in the San Diego County backcountry.
The FAA is accepting public feedback on the closure through Wednesday (March 13), by 1 p.m. Pacific Time. Those interested can email ClosureComments@faa.gov.