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Air tanker base opens for what fire official say could be another active wildfire season

Fly-in a chance for first responders to familiarize themselves with various craft
Firefighters from multiple agencies attended the 2024 fly-in at the Durango Air Tanker Base, operated by the San Juan National Forest, on Monday. The Mesa Verde Helitack aircraft was one of the craft on display. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

The Durango Air Tanker Base opened May 15 in preparation for what fire officials say is likely to be an “average” wildfire season.

With a snowpack that barely peaked above 30-year median levels and has melted rapidly since mid-April, the intensity of Southwest Colorado’s fire season still depends on many factors, such as the ferocity of the summer monsoons and wind.

“Keep in mind an average June here is an active fire season,” said Toby Cook, deputy fire staff officer with the San Juan National Forest. “So, average doesn't mean that we won't be in a fire season, average could be a very active fire season.”

Firefighters from multiple agencies attended the 2024 fly-in at the Durango Air Tanker Base, operated by the San Juan National Forest, on Monday. Among the aircraft there was a new jet, one of just two in the country used for air attack operations. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

The forest operates the base at the Durango-La Plata County Airport during fire season. Air tankers and other firefighting support aircraft use the base to refuel and restock on retardant. It also is home to the forest’s Durango Helitack crew.

At a fly-in event Monday, members from various partner agencies involved in fighting wildland fires gathered to familiarize themselves with the various planes, helicopters and drones they may encounter.

“We’re open and ready,” Assistant Air Tanker Base Manager Dave Hautamaki said.

The base is open through September, unless fire season draws on longer than expected.

A Flight For Life helicopter was one of four aircraft at the Durango Air Tanker Base on Monday. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

One of three multi mission aircraft owned by the state’s Department of Public Safety sat parked on the tarmac Monday, as well as a Flight For Life helicopter and the Mesa Verde Helitack aircraft, which was rigged with a short-haul system to transport humans below the helicopter on a tether.

The only major difference from last year is an upgrade to the air attack plane that coordinates aerial firefighting of wildland fires. This year, fire managers will use a faster Cessna Citation jet, which can keep pace with the newer generation of air tankers. Most air attack modules still use twin propeller planes which cannot arrive on scene as quickly.

“We want to have aerial supervision on scene before we're doing tankers,” Hautamaki said.

No air tankers – the aircraft that dump fire retardant or water on wildfires – have been called to the base yet.

Preparation for the fire season has been “pretty standard,” Cook said.

High winds or monsoons that produce lightening but only a little bit of moisture could result in more wildfires this year, while heavy rain and minimal winds could keep blazes at bay.

Currently, fuel conditions are OK.

“Things are drying quickly, but we're in a really good conditions right now,” Cook said.

Fire managers will use a faster Cessna Citation jet, which can keep pace with the newer generation of air tankers. Most air attack modules still use twin propeller planes which cannot arrive on scene as quickly. (Reuben M. Schafir/Durango Herald)

This week, fuels managers opted to expand the footprint of the lightening-caused Spruce Creek Fire northeast of Dolores for the purposes of hazardous fuels reduction, which lowers the risk of future catastrophic wildfires.

“It’s so hard to predict what we’re going to have,” Cook said. “The best we can do is just being prepared.”

rschafir@durangoherald.com



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