Aging facilities are a concern; other sites may be considered
By Ann McCreary
The future of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) will be evaluated during the next year to determine if deteriorating facilities and other problems at the base can be resolved, or whether operations should be moved to a different location in Washington.
The U.S. Forest Service, which owns and operates the smokejumper base at the Methow Valley State Airport, is putting together a team to evaluate issues facing NCSB and possible solutions, said Mike Williams, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor.
Aging facilities at the 77-year-old base, known as the “birthplace of smoke jumping,” are among the problems that were identified in a review of the base conducted this past summer by the Forest Service, Williams said in an interview on Tuesday (Dec. 20).
In addition, three Forest Service buildings near the airport runway are located in an “obstacle free zone” in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards, and state transportation officials could ask that they be removed.
Each year the Forest Service reviews conditions at one or two smokejumper bases around the nation, and this year’s review of NCSB helped “elevate” the base to the top priority among facilities operated by the Pacific Northwest Fire and Aviation Management program, Williams said.
A multidisciplinary team from the Forest Service will conduct a “Preliminary Project Analysis” to evaluate needed improvements at the 19-acre base, and examine the feasibility of alternate base locations, Williams said.
“It’s likely the team will look at Wenatchee and Yakima. Those two locations have been mentioned as the likely other places to look at” for possible relocation of the smokejumper operations, Williams said.
“Once we have an array of different alternatives, costs, advantages, disadvantages … the team puts a report together,” he said.
Williams said he expects the project analysis team to be assembled in early 2017, and possibly complete a report by summer. He said the team would come out of the regional Forest Service headquarters in Portland and would likely include engineers, fire management staff and smokejumpers.
Issues at NCSB were outlined in an October Forest Service memorandum that was provided to the Methow Valley News last week by a concerned community member.
The memo said the Forest Service “plans to continue smokejumper operations at NCSB in 2017 and is committed to continuing to provide aerially delivered firefighters in North Central Washington and nationally.”
The most recent airport layout plan approved by the FAA in 1995 recommends removing the three Forest Service buildings on the east side of the runway that are in a designated “obstacle-free zone,” according to the memo.
The Washington State Department of Transportation, which oversees the airport, could ask that the Forest Service remove the buildings, because runway obstructions “may adversely affect the state’s eligibility to continue receiving funding from FAA for airport upgrades and expansions,” the memo said.
The state has not yet made a request to remove the three buildings, the memo said. The buildings are a parachute loft, where parachutes are sewed and stored, an operations building and a saw shack.
Facilities engineers estimate it would cost $10 million to address deficiencies at NCSB facilities, including moving the structures by the runway and renovating other buildings, according to the memo.
Among the buildings needing renovations is the main bunkhouse, which was “constructed in 1950 and has had no substantial improvements since.” It does not meet basic health and safety standards, the memo said.
Moving the smokejumper base to either Pangborn Airport in Wenatchee or Macalister Field in Yakima would require a lease, the memo said. “Based on current lease costs at other airports within the region, it is anticipated that a lease would run approximately $400,000 per year for a 10-15 year lease,” the memo said.
The project analysis team would evaluate NCSB and potential new sites based on criteria including fire occurrences and response times, socioeconomic factors, impacts to employees, implementation time, and cost, according to the Forest Service memo.
“We’re required to examine options,” said Williams. “Is there another site reasonably proximate to the existing base that could accommodate the same function at lower costs?”
Impacts on the local community and base employees as a result of moving the base would be considered in the team’s evaluations, said Williams, and staff at the base “would be consulted” as part of the project analysis. But Williams said he did not know whether the general public would have input.
“Typically it’s an internal effort … I’m not sure if public engagement would be part of it,” he said.
Not the first time
This is hardly the first time that the smokejumper base has been evaluated for improvements or closure, said Bill Moody of Twisp, who began his 33-year smoke jumping career in 1957 and was NCSB manager from 1972-1989.
“We had five or six different studies looking at centralization and upgrading of the facilities. A lot of it was the general trend within the Forest Service of centralizing” facilities and services, he said.
A 1979 national smokejumper base study aimed to centralize all regional smokejumper operations in the northwest at Redmond, Oregon, said Moody, who wrote a history of NCSB called “Spittin’ in the Wind.”
The base in the Methow Valley was to become a “spike base” that would be staffed only when needed, Moody said.
“A strong political response from the Methow-Okanogan Valleys and state-national congressmen” along with support from local forest service officials persuaded regional and national forest Service officials to compromise, Moody wrote in his book.
The crew at NCSB was reduced from 45 to 11 jumpers and all training was conducted in Redmond. In addition, all the NCSB sewing machines were moved to Redmond and the smokejumpers’ parachutes had to be rigged in Redmond and transported to NCSB, Moody said.
Another study in 1984 reinstated NCSB as a “viable base” and the crew numbers increased to 20, he said.
The base now has a 30-person crew in summer and “a handful” of permanent employees, Williams said. The employees include base manager Daren Belsby, who said he preferred not to comment about current plans for NCSB.
Moody said he anticipates support for maintaining the base in the Methow Valley, both for its strategic advantages and its historic significance.
The location provides a “good, effective initial response” to areas from the Olympic Peninsula on the west to the Idaho border on the east, and from Mount Adams in the south to the Canadian border on the north, he said.
It is also a prime location for training, surrounded by the type of terrain where smokejumpers respond, he said.
“Politically I think there’s going to be a lot of support for maintaining the base here. There is the very rapid initial attack on fire. Not only jumping, but supporting ground resources,” he said.
“When you look at the culture, the history, I think there would be very strong support.”
The trend toward more severe wildfire seasons may also create support for maintaining the base in the Methow Valley, Moody said.
“The hard cold fact is that the trend has been for warmer temperatures, which has resulted in longer fire seasons and more intense seasons, coupled with the state of the forests and the health of the forests,” he said.