A race against winter and the fear of ominous fog in Pendleton. Both are parts of a lively story behind the creation of the new $5 million Grande Ronde Rappel Base next to the La Grande/Union County Airport.
The story was celebrated Wednesday during an open house for the Grande Ronde Rappel Base, which was officially completed Sept. 1 but which has been operating since April. The base features a 10,000-square-foot building and four helicopter landing pads.
“It is a showcase,’’ said Noel Livingston, Wallowa Whitman National Forest forest fire staff officer.
The base is for helicopter rappelling flights to wildfires. For a rappel, a helicopter hovers over the intended spot and the rapellers slide down ropes up to 250 feet with the help of a descent device.
The base’s building features include a ready room filled with gear firefighters don before flying to a blaze, an equipment room, office space, a training room and an operations room filled with high-tech radio equipment. The operations room has striking angled windows that provide operators a degree of peripheral vision, allowing them to look south and north for additional helicopters coming in or taking off.
Construction of the rappel base was funded with a $4 million loan Union County received from the state and a $1 million Connect Oregon grant. The U.S. Forest Service is leasing the building from Union County.
The building of the new rappel base started in the late summer of 2018. Wellens Farewell Construction of Enterprise, the contractor for the project, was able get the shell for the base’s new building finished before winter hit. This made it possible for interior work to be conducted in the winter when the weather was inclement, said Union County Public Works Director Doug Wright.
Wright was impressed with the perseverance Wellens Farwell staff showed in getting the shell of the building up before winter.
“At one point they had 35 people working at the site. They really did an outstanding job,” Wright said.
Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor Tom Montoya said that completion of the rappel base is a credit to unwavering cooperation between the county and the Forest Service.
“We have had a really strong and vital relationship,” Montoya said.
Steve McClure, who retired in January after a three-decade career as a Union County Commissioner, began working to get the rappel base built about seven years ago. He was inspired to do so because he said that La Grande is centrally located within the area of the Wallowa Whitman and Umatilla national forests and because its operation would bring additional money into Union County. He said that La Grande was in competition with Baker City and Pendleton for the rappel base.
McClure said that he accompanied many Union County officials on trips to Portland and Salem to talk with legislators and government representatives about getting state funding for the project and designing it.
“We often left at 4:30 in the morning (on trips to Western Oregon),” McClure said.
The rappel base replaced one with a much smaller building and landing space that had been at the La Grande/Union County Airport for years before it was torn down.
Kelly Hedgepeth, base manager of the Grande Ronde Rappel Base said that the airport is an ideal site for the rappel base because it provides easy access to aircraft fuel and is a place where helicopter parts can quickly be flown in.
The La Grande/Union County Airport is where it is today in large part because of World War II, McClure said. He explained that he has been told that the U.S. Army Air Corps had a base at Pendleton eight decades ago and was concerned that there would be days in which flights could not be made because Umatilla County often has fog.
Infrastructure for an airport in La Grande, including a runway, was installed by the Army in La Grande at its present site as a result.
“It was built in La Grande as a backup,” McClure said.
This infrastructure helped the La Grande’s airport grow into the one it is today, making a good complement for the rappel base.
The history of the Grande Ronde Rappel Base is also connected to old rappel bases at Ukiah and Enterprise. The one located in Ukiah was known as the Frazier rappel base and the one in Enterprise was named the Sled Springs rappel base.
The Frazier base was particularly humble, Livingston said.
“About 20 years ago it was a set of trailers,” he said.
The Frazier rappel crew was moved into a building adjacent to the La Grande Union County Airport in 2012 and where it became known as the Blue Mountain Rappellers.
The Sled Springs Rappellers and the Blue Mountain Rappellers were consolidated in 2017, becoming known as the Grande Ronde Rappel Crew. The new building is filled with signs and emblems from the old Frazier and Sled Springs bases.
“About half of our crew are from those bases,” Hedgepeth said.
The Grande Ronde Rappel Base has three helicopters and has space for up to about 10.
The base’s four helipads are made of asphalt and concrete. The concrete is in the middle of each and is what pilots need to land their helicopters on, said Miles Hancock of the Grande Ronde Rappel Base. He said if pilots land on asphalt they run the risk of having their helicopters sink especially in hot weather when asphalt is softer.
“Crews will sometimes be up all night making repairs,’’ Hedgepeth said.
The new base is one of six in the U.S. Forest Service’s Region 6, whose other rappel bases are in John Day, Prineville, Grants Pass and Wenatchee, Washington.
Hedgepeth said that the new base exceeded her expectations.
“Yes, by far. It is a high-quality, beautiful facility,” Hedgepeth said.