Workers pump one of two air tankers at the La Grande Air Tanker Base with retardant for a fire near Sumpter on Thursday afternoon. The single-engine air tankers are on Department of Forestry contract as part of a pilot program this fire season. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Fast, agile single-engine retardant planes attack N.E. Oregon wildfires
In a matter of minutes, air tankers at the La Grande Air Tanker Base are pumped with retardant and ready to hit the runway.
Two single-engine air tankers (SEATs) arrived this week to aid the Department of Forestry with fire suppression—and they’ve already had two missions.
“They’re designed specifically for fires and fire suppression,” said ODF Unit Forester Joe Hessel.
The tankers are on 75-day contract from Queen Bee Air out of Idaho and are already proving themselves as assets during fire season.
They flew a mission Wednesday for a small fire near Enterprise and were dispatched again Thursday afternoon for a fire near Sumpter.
“These planes are available for initial attack,” Hessel said. “They’re fast, they’re agile and they can get into areas the big tankers can’t get into.”
Two heavy tankers, which hold about 1,600-3,000 gallons of retardant as opposed to about 750 gallons in the SEATs, are on contract statewide but are not kept at the La Grande Air Tanker Base.
Hessel said the goal with the tankers is to suppress the fires when they’re small because it’s cheaper — and safer — to pay for fires on the front end rather than on the back end.
So far so good
The first few days appear to be going well.
“With this being a new program, we want it to run smoothly, so I’m here to handle any problems,” said Joseph Goebel, ODF aviation coordinator for the region. “It’s been running really smoothly.”
Goebel said there are a lot of moving parts, but any problems they have had so far have been minor.
The SEATs joined La Grande for one of several pilot programs going on across Oregon, though La Grande was the only base to receive the tankers.
“I think it’s because we’ve used them before and been successful,” Hessel said. ODF’s La Grande division had previously used SEATs from the Idaho Department of Lands
Borrowing from other entities isn’t new during fire season. In fact, the La Grande Air Tanker Base is operated by the U.S. Forest Service — and the air attack aircraft that flies out with the tankers is operated by the Forest Service, too. Air attack provides the tactical mission on the ground as well as keeps track of and coordinates any aircraft working the fire, Goebel said.
“We fly regardless of jurisdiction,” Jamie Knight, ODF forester, said. Wednesday’s fire was on Forest Service land, but that didn’t keep the ODF SEATs grounded. The interagency dispatch center just next to the tanker base covers a seven-million acre area that includes ODF-protected lands, Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests, the Hells Canyon area and other lands.
All the moving parts may seem confusing, especially when it’s time to talk money, but Hessel said it isn’t a concern until the fire is out.
“In the end each agency will pay its fair share,” he said.
The new SEATs are a result of the state’s Wildfire Protection Act, signed into law by Gov. Kitzhaber on July 8. The three-part legislation was designed, in part, to address affordability problems in Eastern Oregon to enhance its fire protection.
“It’s kind of a landmark piece of legislation in terms of funding for ODF,” Hessel said.
The act will also phase in 50-50 public-private sharing of fire costs. Hessel said right now private landowners are paying about 70 percent of the costs while the general fund covers the rest. Finally, the new law seeks to boost up-front capacity to suppress fires while they are small.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Hessel said. “We’re pretty excited for a lot of reasons.”
Just before Knight was scheduled to fly out on recon Thursday, ODF got the call for the fire near Sumpter and the base moved into action.
After the fire is reported, Hessel said, dispatch issues a resource order and then the tanker base provides coordinates for the fire and frequencies for communication with teams on the ground.
Within 10 minutes, the retardant pump is filling the SEATs, and shortly thereafter, the wheels are off the runway. The SEATs fly out to missions together, along with the air attack aircraft, to fight the fire.
“They work great in tandem,” Hessel said. They fly at about 100-125 mph and have a 50-70 mile working radius.
La Grande’s SEATs flew three loads to assist in containing the Sumpter-area fire. ODF also deployed a helicopter for assistance. By 4:30, the fire was nearly contained to “approximately 3 acres in steep rugged country in the Fruit Creek area about 5 miles north of Sumpter,” Hessel said.
Like Wednesday’s fire, multiple agencies played roles with engines, hand crews and overhead.
‘A day at the office’
All the moving parts are pretty normal for the ODF employees at the base.
“We’re so far removed from the operation … it’s not a big deal,” Goebel said.
“It’s a day at the office,” Knight added. She does get excited when she’s running a recon mission on the lookout for smoke, though.
“When you see that smoke, you’re the first person to see that fire. It’s exciting,” she said. “A good day is finding one fire. An exceptional day is finding multiple fires.”