USFS assessing possibility of moving facility

By Ann McCreary

Alarmed by the possibility that the historic North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) could be shut down in the future, local elected officials and economic leaders are mustering forces to keep the base open.

Photo courtesy of the U. S. Forest Service
The 77-year-old North Cascades Smokejumper Base, located at the Methow Valley State Airport, is undergoing assessment by the U.S. Forest Service.

The U.S. Forest Service, which owns and operates the smokejumper base at the Methow Valley State Airport, is assessing the condition of facilities at the 77-year-old base to determine whether it would make sense to close the base and move smokejumper operations to Wenatchee or Yakima.

The analysis of NCSB should be completed this spring, according to Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

“The Forest Service plans to continue smokejumper operations at NCSB in 2017 and into the foreseeable future. There has been no decision to relocate the NCSB facility,” Tidwell said in a letter sent earlier this month to Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside.

Local officials are unhappy that they haven’t been included in the assessment process that got underway last year, and will determine whether the smokejumper base stays in the Methow Valley.

Several local officials met last Thursday (Feb. 9) in a strategy session that included Mayors Soo Ing-Moody of Twisp and Anne Acheson of Winthrop, Okanogan County Commissioners Jim DeTro and Andy Hover, and Sandy Moody and David Gottula, presidents of the Twisp and Winthrop chambers of commerce.

Hannah McIntosh, healthy economy program manager at TwispWorks, facilitated the meeting at TwispWorks and offered to support local officials in advocating for keeping the base in the Methow Valley.

“How is it that they are in the scoping process and we didn’t know about it?” asked Hover.

“We invoke coordination on other issues. They went behind our backs,” DeTro said.

The Forest Service’s regional headquarters in Portland is leading the assessment, which is being conducted by a multidisciplinary team of fire and aviation staff, according to the letter from Tidwell.

The assessment is called a “preliminary project analysis (PPA).” That analysis is required whenever the Forest Service is considering a substantial change in its facilities.

“We believe good communication is essential and we’re continuing to work with folks to share information at this very early stage of the facility management process,” said Holly Krake, public affairs officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

“However … there is not a formal comment or objection process with a PPA,” she said. The process, she added, “requires that all viable alternatives be evaluated.”

Obstacle-free zone

One of the key concerns about the base is the location of three buildings next to the airport runway within a designated “obstacle-free zone,” which violates Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards. The structures include a parachute loft, where parachutes are sewed and stored, an administration building and a saw maintenance building.

File photo by Laurelle Walsh
Smokejumpers at North Cascades Smokejumper Base enter the parachute loft, one of three buildings located in an “obstacle free zone” next to the airport runway.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which oversees the airport, could require — but hasn’t yet — that those buildings be relocated to comply with FAA requirements.

“The most recent FAA-approved Airport Layout Plan for the Methow Valley State Airport, recommends removal of (the) three agency buildings,” said Krake.

“Washington State DOT could ask the agency (Forest Service) to remove these buildings as runway obstructions within the obstacle-free zone, but has not yet made this request,” she said.

 In his letter to Newhouse, Tidwell said the evaluation of NCSB will determine “the nature and extent of improvements needed to bring current NCSB facilities into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements … We will use this opportunity to also assess facility conditions, associated maintenance needs, and opportunities to improve fire management effectiveness.”

The assessment team is evaluating whether to maintain the smokejumper base at its current location, or whether it would be better to move operations to Pangborn Airport in Wenatchee or Macalister Field in Yakima, Tidwell said.

Preparing for a fight

Local officials made it clear last week that they don’t intend to let the base be moved out of the Methow Valley without a fight.

“They are using the obstruction-free zone at the airport as an excuse. Neither the FAA or WSDOT have requested that (the smokejumper base buildings be moved),” said DeTro.

“They would have to do that at every airport in the state,” DeTro added. “There are buildings and obstructions at every single airport in Washington State.”

Closing the base would have significant impacts on the Methow Valley and Okanogan County, local officials said.

“We’re already a distressed county,” Hover said.

Twisp Mayor Ing-Moody said the smokejumper base plays an important role in the economy of the Methow Valley.

“To move this base to Yakima or Wenatchee, the significance to us is immeasurable. But they won’t even notice the impact either positive or negative,” Ing-Moody said.

The base has a crew of about 30 smokejumpers in summer, according to Forest Service officials.

It employs about a dozen permanent employees, who have homes and families in the Methow Valley, said Bill Moody of Twisp, who was a smokejumper for 33 years at NCSB and was the base manager from 1972-1989.

Moody prepared a list of potential impacts associated with relocating the base, which he said has an operating budget of about $800,000 per year.

The base is known as the “birthplace of smokejumping” because the first experimental jumps were conducted there in 1939. It has historical and cultural significance for the valley, said Moody, who wrote a history about NCSB called “Spittin’ in the Wind.”

“NCSB gives base tours to approximately 3,000-plus visitors annually. This is a major positive public relations impact,” Moody said. It is included as a tourist destination on the North Cascade scenic loop route, he said.

“It has historical value, it has emotional value,” said DeTro, a former smokejumper. “I spent six years of my life there. It’s how I got through college.”

Local officials want to keep the rapid initial attack capability provided by NSCB, particularly after devastating wildfires swept through Okanogan, Chelan and Ferry counties in 2014 and 2015.

“After two years of wildfires, we need those resources,” Ing-Moody said.

Officials also cited the value of having the base located near steep mountain terrain that smokejumpers use for training. 

“If they have to travel to do training, it doesn’t make sense,” Ing-Moody said.

The current location also allows fast delivery of smokejumpers to other parts of the state, DeTro said.

“From here we can have chutes in the air and boots on the ground anywhere in Washington in one hour,” DeTro said.

Officials were also concerned that if the smokejumper base were relocated, the state might be less inclined to maintain the state-owned airport.

“There is a reason for WSDOT to keep the tarmac up — because the base is there,” Hover said.

Costly renovations

Each year the Forest Service reviews conditions at one or two smokejumper bases around the nation, and NCSB was one of the bases reviewed last year, said Mike Williams, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor, in a recent interview.

Problems at NCSB were outlined in an October 2016 memorandum from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. In addition to the buildings in the obstacle free zone, the Forest Service said other buildings at the base are deteriorating and need renovation.

The main bunkhouse was built in 1950 and has had “no substantial improvements since. It does not currently meet basic health and safety standards,” the memo said.

A study conducted in 2015 by Design West Architects of Pullman put the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the three structures in the obstacle-free zone at $3.5-$3.7 million.

Facilities engineers estimate it would cost $10 million to address all the deficiencies at the base, including moving the structures by the runway and renovating other buildings, according to the Forest Service memo.

Moving the base to either Yakima or Wenatchee would require a lease with those airports, estimated to cost about $400,000 per year for a 10-15 year lease, the memo said.

In their meeting last week, local officials questioned how the cost of leasing property would compare with rehabilitating the existing smokejumper base buildings, which are located on 19 acres of Forest Service property adjacent to the airport.

“The Forest Service owns what’s underneath the buildings of the smokejumper base. They would have to rebuild those buildings wherever they go,” said DeTro.  Among the buildings is a tower with a cable system used for smokejumper training, he said.

The analysis of the existing base and potential new locations would consider criteria including fire occurrences and response times, socioeconomic factors, impacts to employees, implementation time, and cost, according to the Forest Service memo.

Krake said no decisions have been made by the Forest Service beyond the commitment to complete the analysis of the smokejumper base.

“The Forest Service will continue operations at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in 2017 and is committed to continuing to provide aerially delivered firefighters in North Central Washington and throughout the United States,” she said.