It is relatively quiet now at the La Grande Air Tanker Base, a quiet that may be remembered as the calm before the storm.
The region served by the air tanker base — Northeast Oregon, Southeast Washington and Northern Idaho — has been free of major wildfires the past month. With the limited need for planes making fire retardant drops, the La Grande Air Tanker Base, where planes land to receive fire retardant and fuel, has been calm.
“It has been much quieter than normal,” Griff Williams, manager of the La Grande Tanker Base, said on Sunday.
Fires that the La Grande Air Tanker Base has helped fight this summer include two this weekend, the 1,000-acre Little Rail Creek Fire 12 miles east of Pilot Rock and the Porcupine Fire near Fossil in Wheeler County.
On Saturday, six tanker flights from La Grande carrying retardant were sent to the Little Rail Creek Fire and two were sent to the Porcupine Fire. On Friday three small fires were ignited by lightning strikes in the Crawfish Lake area of Baker County but they did not require retardant drops.
The fire requiring the most retardant flights out of La Grande so far this summer was the Rattlesnake Creek Fire in Northern Idaho. Fifteen tankers were flown to the fire about a week ago.
Despite the relative lack of fire activity in its region, the crew at the base remains wary since it knows it may be a question of not if, but when, a major fire hits in the region due to hot temperatures and tinder-dry conditions.
“We know there is a good chance of a major fire. We just have not had a source of ignition,” Williams said.
Williams knows all too well what could be on the horizon, for memories of the summer of 2016 are still fresh in his mind. That summer, the 500-acre Weigh Station Fire broke out at about 1:45 p.m. July 30, 17 miles east of Pendleton.
The fire grew quickly but its expansion was curbed with the help of numerous drops of retardant from air tankers, all of which took off from La Grande. Williams said during the first eight hours of the fire, 50 fire retardant flights left his tanker base.
“It was hectic,” Williams said.
The situation was made even more frenzied by a two-hour power outage that struck Union County about an hour after the fire broke out. Williams said the power outage did not impact the air tanker base’s operations because of backup generators powered by gasoline.
The generators provided power for equipment including gas and fire retardant pumps. The retardant pumps push retardant into planes at a rate of 500 gallons a minute. Having pumps that work at high speeds is critical during a fire since many large air tankers carry up to approximately 4,000 gallons of retardant and the smaller single-seat tankers carry 700 gallons.
The retardant the base’s crew loads on to planes is composed of water, ammonium polyphosphate and a gumming agent. The gumming agent thickens the retardant, preventing it from dissipating before it reaches the flames, said Katie Gray, a public information officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Gray said retardant is dropped not to extinguish a blaze but to give firefighters a better chance to move in closer to it because it reduces the height of the flames, which slows a fire’s progress.
“Many people think the more retardant you drop on a fire, the faster it is put out, but that is not the case,” she said. “(Fire retardant) provides the opportunity to slow the progress.”
Since it is critical to have immediate firefighter follow-up after dropping retardant, it is used primarily in the daytime when there are more firefighters on the ground.
“You want to drop fire retardant when you can best follow it up with ground forces,” Gray said.
Pilots generally try to drop retardant from a height of 300 feet. Dropping it from a height greater than this increases the chance the retardant will dissipate before it hits the fire, and if dropped at a lower height, the retardant might not dissipate before it hits the ground. The goal is for the retardant to dissipate immediately above the fire before hitting the ground.
“We want to create a rainfall effect so that it will fully cover the fuel,” Williams said, explaining the retardant is much less effective if it hits the ground before dissipating.
The La Grande Air Tanker Base fuels and loads planes with retardant for fires up to 500 miles away. The majority of the planes leaving the base make a round trip back to the La Grande base.
Planes are not sent from La Grande to a wildfire in that 500-mile radius if there is a tanker base closer to it. This is why planes did not leave the La Grande base for the Substation Fire in Wasco County earlier this summer.
Williams said tankers for that fire, which broke out July 17, were sent from a tanker base in Redmond, which is at least 130 miles closer to Wasco County than La Grande.
Retardant was particularly effective in the Substation Fire because much of it was in open areas where there were few trees to prevent the retardant from reaching the flames.
“In tall timber, retardant is less likely to hit the ground as quickly,” Williams said.
The largest planes flown out of the La Grande Air Tanker Base are MD-87 and C-130 jets. The MD-87s have a 3,000-gallon capacity and the C-130s have a 4,000-gallon capacity. The smallest planes flown from the base are single-engine prop planes, which carry about 700 gallons of retardant.
The jets are a far cry from the less advanced aircraft that flew out of the La Grade Air Tanker Base close to three decades ago. Williams knows this well because his father, Wayne, managed the air base from 1989 to 1994. The planes flown from the base then were slower and less powerful.
“They would have to circle the valley two or three times before they could get high enough to leave the valley,” said Williams, who has been the manager of the La Grande Air Tanker Base since 2016.
The planes flying out of La Grande’s base today do not need to circle the Grande Ronde Valley even once to build up the speed needed to get out, Williams said. He said if today’s aircraft leave from the proper angle, they can fly directly out of the valley.
The facility’s equipment is also superior to what was available years ago. Williams said the base has high-quality pumps and other top-of-the-line equipment due in large part to Russell Hurst, who managed the base from 1994 to 2015.
“He paid close attention to detail,” Williams said.
He said Hurst, who lives in Union, also played an important role in developing an efficient system for the base’s operations.
“It is one of the nicest, cleanest and best run tanker bases in the nation,” Williams said.