BLM to expand firefighting air base in Pocatello
POCATELLO — Eastern Idaho is in the home stretch of an average fire season, but the air base at the Pocatello Regional Airport has been busier than ever, as its traditional service area has spread further into surrounding states, officials said.
To accommodate increasing firefighting aircraft traffic, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service plan to build a third “pit” there, where aircraft will refuel and reload flame retardant, within the next couple of years.
Robert Barnes, aviation officer with the BLM and Forest Service, said the base has long helped cover wildfires in Eastern Idaho, Western Wyoming and Northern Utah. In recent years, he said the base has also been dispatching an increasing number of aircraft to as far away as Eastern Oregon and Central Nevada.
Monday morning, for example, a pair of DC-10 air tankers, which carry up to 9,400 gallons of retardant, launched from the local air base to help contain the Range Two Fire in Elko, Nevada. Barnes said the federal government has a contract with a private company for four DC-10s to assist in nationwide firefighting efforts.
The Pocatello base has accepted DC-10s since 2011, and each year Barnes said it seems as if the large tankers stop here more often. Pocatello has the only air base in the Great Basin region capable of accommodating the massive DC-10s, which he believes accounts for some of the recent uptick in activity.
“Adding that third pit is going to make us more efficient in the long run to be able to service the area we need to service with the number of airplanes we’re seeing,” Barnes said.
The agencies opened the local air base in 1988, a year after a bad fire in the Johnny Creek neighborhood. Barnes said the number of aircraft using the Pocatello airport correlates with the severity of the regional fire season.
Barnes said about 2.9 million gallons of retardant have already been dispatched to fires from aircraft leaving the base, compared with a 10-year average of 560,000 gallons. The base is typically open through the first week of October.
Barnes said the base has a significant economic impact on the community. Two seasons ago, when he last estimated the economic impact, the base was responsible for purchasing $1 million in fuel from the local area and contributed more than $200,000 in meals and lodging for firefighters, Barnes said.
Eastern Idaho’s fire season has been relatively uneventful, compared with surrounding areas. BLM fire information officer Kelsey Griffey said 135,000 acres had burned in Eastern Idaho this season, as of Monday, and fire crews have responded to 130 fires in the region.
“It’s been a fairly average season,” Griffey said, adding last season’s numbers were roughly equivalent. “Our firefighters did a really good job of catching fires early on.”
Griffey said a single wildfire, the Grassy Ridge Fire near Dubois, burned 99,500 acres of this season’s total.