Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Busy Hub of Activity: Forest Service, other agencies depend on regional airport, fuel amid bustling fire season in the area

By Cherise Kaechele
The Observer
Pictures: Tim Mustoe 
Monday July, 27th, 2015

While the Blue Creek Fire is not directly impacting Union County, it’s still very much affecting the area. The La Grande/Union County airport is a huge asset to the crews currently fighting the blaze that’s several hours away.
The Blue Creek Fire is eight miles east of Walla Walla, Washington, according to a news release from the incident information system out of Washington. It began a week ago and is approximately 50 percent contained as of Sunday. This human-caused fire is now the highest priority in the nation for wildfires because of the threat to Mill Creek’s watershed, Walla Walla’s only water supply, according to a news article from the Walla Walla Union Bulletin Newspaper
Union County Emergency Services Manager J. B. Brock said the fire is flirting dangerously close to the watershed — a significant problem that could have lasting effects to Mill Creek.
“That fire, depending on how it evolves, can go from a bad fire to a nightmare,” Brock said. “Depending on what it does over the next couple of weeks, that could easily turn into a nightmare scenario.”
The fire is estimated to have burned more than 6,000 acres as of Sunday, according to the release. There are evacuations already in place, including several road closures.
The fire season means an influx of revenue for Union County’s airport due to the number of planes flying into and out of the airport to fight the Washington state fire and the others in the area.
“Fuel sales is a major revenue source,” said County Commissioner Steve McClure. “Most people in the community don’t realize how engaged the airport is. The tanker base, the fire cache, rappel crews, hotshot crews are all using that airport year-round, but especially during fire season.”
A company out of Montana is using the county airport as a base for its tanker planes, which travel to Blue Creek and drop retardant then fly back to refuel and reload, said Union County Public Works Director Doug Wright. Wright said the fuel tanks at the airport are being replenished every day and the airport has been going through 10,000 gallons of fuel on a daily basis since this fire began. That’s all revenue for the airport.
“The fuel sales keep us going,” said Wright, who is also the airport director.
The Blue Creek Fire is not the first fire the county airport has assisted with this season, noted Larry Aragon, the air tactical group supervisor at the Blue Mountain Interagency Fire Center.
“The fire season started earlier in June,” Aragon said. “And it started with more ferocity. You can’t predict the kind of fire season we’re going to have. A week from now it can turn.”
Aragon said the tankers are flying in and out of the airport for a maximum of eight hours. He said he doesn’t know how many trips they can really make because sometimes it’s just a constant come-and-go flight. It just depends where the fire is and how much retardant needs to be dropped.
At the fire center, a small group of dispatchers oversee the management of fires across seven million acres of land, including the Blue Creek Fire.
Renae Crippen, the manager of the Blue Mountain Interagency Fire Center, said the Blue Creek Fire got so big that a separate team of dispatchers had to be called in from the base at the fire to focus only on that fire. She said that small group is taking care of 1,000 firefighters at Blue Creek.
The center focuses on seven different agencies, taking care of the crews and planes in the 7-million acre span. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Umatilla National Forest, Oregon Department of Forestry, Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Bureau of Indian The agencies are all constantly managed by the dispatchers at the fire center, Crippen said.
Another asset to those utilizing the airport is its fire cache, also located at the fire center.
The agencies call in orders to the fire cache located at the airport, where every supply a firefighter may need to fight a fire is stored. The orders are shipped out to the fires and can be loaded within an hour if need be, Crippen said.
McClure and Wright agree that during the fire season is when the airport’s budget is made. The revenue generated from the planes utilizing the airport can cover the whole year’s expenses.

Neptune, a tanker plane company out of Montana, is using the La Grande/Union County airport to refuel its planes and reload more retardant to fight the Blue Creek Fire as well as the other fires in the area.

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