Funding needed to guarantee that it remains here
By Ann McCreary
Home to the first experimental fire-fighting jumps in 1939, the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) will remain at the site it has occupied in the Methow Valley for the past 77 years — at least for the time being, and only if funding can be secured for needed upgrades.
The future of the base has been up in the air during the past year, after the U.S. Forest Service began a review to determine whether it would be better to move smokejumping operations to larger airports at Wenatchee or Yakima.
Last week, the Forest Service announced that the current location at the Methow Valley Airport, a state-operated airport on East County Road between Twisp and Winthrop, remains the best location for the base. But that determination, according to the report, “is predicated on obtaining an estimate $5.2 million in construction funds in the next two to three years.”
The funding is needed to demolish three old buildings that are too close to the runway, in violation of federal aviation regulations, and to construct a new building at the base, according to the Forest Service’s Preliminary Project Analysis (PPA). The analysis also provided lower cost construction options.
If the funding can’t be obtained, the analysis recommends moving the base to Wenatchee “as the next viable alternative.” The analysis eliminated Yakima from consideration.
The analysis found the Methow Valley location had a “slight advantage” over Wenatchee, “largely attributed to the socio-economic impact of moving jobs from the smaller communities of Winthrop and Twisp.”
The North Cascades base is the duty station for 30 smokejumpers. That equates to 1.5 jobs per smokejumper, or 45 jobs total, to account for family members employed in the community, according to the analysis. That makes it the fourth or fifth largest employer in the valley, the PPA said.
Those 45 jobs have a far greater impact to the economy of to the Methow Valley, a community of only 1,600 residents, than they would for Wenatchee, with a population of 46,000, the analysis concluded.
The base, known as the “the birthplace of smoke jumping,” offers public tours that draw about 5,000 visitors each year.
The news that the base will remain at its historic location for at least a couple of years was welcomed by local officials who have lobbied to keep it in the Methow Valley. But they also acknowledged the challenge of securing the funding to make the improvements outlined in the analysis.
“We’re thrilled with the fact they’ve made that recommendation, but we also know that this does not conclusively mean the base will be improved as it needs to be and stay viable,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. “We need to make sure that the base gets the funding it needs.”
“I’m very satisfied with the results of the study,” agreed David Gottula, president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce. “Now the hard work begins.”
Obtaining the necessary funding to secure the base for the long term will require support from government entities and representatives in Congress, Gottula said.
“We just have to work the system,” he said. “We will work with the Forest Service to see what we can do to help them.”
Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said he was pleased with the Forest Service’s conclusion for now, but criticized the tone of the report.
“I was extremely irritated,” Hover said. “The whole thing was negative toward the smokejumper base. Even though the recommendation was to keep it here, it was grudging.”
He pointed to a conclusion in the analysis that stated: “Funding of a $5.2 million project is very unlikely given the severe shortage of construction funds nationally.”
“The first thing that caught my eye was two to three years and $5.2 million,” Hover said. “The way it’s worded, it seems like they don’t feel we can raise the money.”
Hover said he was also unhappy that not more smokejumpers who work at the base, who are Forest Service employees, were consulted as part of analysis. “They didn’t allow these guys to show their enthusiasm,” he said. “They’re the ones doing the maintenance there.”
Lower cost options
The analysis of the North Cascades base was prompted by the need to remove three buildings — an office, a parachute loft and a saw maintenance shack — that are within an “object free area” at the state airport. The buildings are allowed under a waiver but jeopardize future federal funding for the airport because they are in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards, according to study.
Although the buildings are in violation, the state has not been asked by federal aviation authorities to remove them, said Paul Wolf, state airports manager. Wolf said the Methow Valley Airport is “considered the highest priority airport out of 16 airports managed by the state” because it is the most widely used for emergency management purposes.
The Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which operates the state airports, will be working with the FAA on plans to remove identified obstructions on its property, Wolf said. As part of that planning, the FAA may require that three buildings at the smokejumper base be removed before approving future federal funds for the Methow Valley Airport, he said.
In addition to demolishing the buildings, the analysis concluded that a new building to replace those facilities would need to be built somewhere on the 19-acre site that is owned by the Forest Service. The $5.2 million construction estimate, based on a 2015 analysis done for the Forest Service, was for a building using conventional methods such as wood framing and concrete block construction.
The new analysis recommended a “scaled down, phased approach” that calls for construction of a metal building at a cost of $2.8 million. A second option proposes building an addition to an existing warehouse at a total cost of $2.2 million. All three estimates include demolition costs for the buildings by the runway, and taxiway and ramp improvements.
“Our budget staff is going to work through the various construction alternatives,” said Holly Krake, a spokesman for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. “There are a range of options to meet the recommendations to keep the base in Winthrop.”
The PPA was completed by Northstar Technology Corporation, independent consultants hired by the Forest Service. The team conducted site visits and evaluated all three proposed base locations, considering fire occurrences and response times, socio-economic impacts to the community and employees, implementation time and costs, and time required to conduct smokejumper training.
On the fire occurrence and response time criterion, the analysis evaluated the total number of fire starts over the past 20 years recorded within a circle of 127 nautical miles from each location. It found that the North Cascades base had 100 percent of fires where smokejumpers would be deployed within the response circle; Pangborn Memorial Airport at Wenatchee had 85 percent of fires where smokejumpers would be deployed, and McAllister Field at Yakima had 60 percent of fires where smokejumpers would be deployed.
The analysis also found that the time involved in smokejumpers training was considerably less at the Methow Valley location — 35 minutes compared to 65 minutes in Wenatchee and 100 minutes in Yakima — because of proximity to appropriate terrain.
Compared to the estimated $5.2 million needed to improve and maintain facilities at the Methow Valley Base over the next 20 years, the study estimated similar costs of $6.7 million at Wenatchee’s Pangborn Airport and $3.8 million at Yakima.
The analysis also considered proximity to the Forest Service Rappel Base, although only Wenatchee, which houses the base, meets that criterion.
Upgrades needed at North Cascades base
Despite the positives of the Methow Valley location, the analysis found that many of old buildings at the North Cascades base are badly in need of upgrades, repairs or replacement. For example, the crew quarters, built in 1950, ”are deficient, unsafe and do not meet life/safety codes for sleeping quarters…and should be closed or replaced as soon as possible.”
The Methow Valley base serves several other agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources, the National Park Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The consultants suggested that the Forest Service explore developing “a multi-agency partnership” which may make funding easier to obtain.
Consultants also said the 19-acre site owned by the Forest Service is larger than needed, and suggested that the Forest Service could consider selling or transferring ownership to help pay for needed improvements.
“Any time we can show leverage partnerships and show collaborative efforts it is better received” when seeking funding, Krake said.
While the future is not guaranteed, Twisp Mayor Ing-Moody said the completion of the analysis is a “critical first step” in keeping the base in the valley.
“I think there are still a lot of moving parts in how this project moves forward,” she said. “The positive side is this is reassurance that this base has critical value not just to us in this community, but to the Forest Service and the state.”