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Durango Air Tanker Base opens for fire season

Agencies gathered Wednesday for training on aerial resources
Tyler Hoest, an unmanned aircraft systems pilot with the U.S. Forest Service’s Columbine Wildland Fire Module, carries one of the two drones he pilots on Wednesday at the annual fly-in at the U.S. Forest Service tanker base at Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Rotors and propellers sat at ease Wednesday as firefighters from a long list of agencies learned about one another’s aerial firefighting resources at the Durango Air Tanker Base at Durango-La Plata County Airport. The base opened for the season May 15, and will remain open, staffed and prepared to respond to fires through Sept. 29.

Personnel from the San Juan Nation Forest, which operates the base, were joined by firefighters from the Durango, Los Pinos and Upper Pine Fire Protection Districts, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Flight For Life, Durango-La Plata County Airport, Bureau of Indian Affairs Ute Mountain Ute fire agency and Mesa Verde Interagency Helitack.

The “show-and-tell” style fly-in allowed firefighters to circulate briefing stations at each agency’s aerial vehicles, which were neatly arranged around the base’s tarmac.

Bobby Ryan, with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, shows the color and infrared camera that is mounted below the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Multi Mission Aircraft that can map fires from an altitude of 10,000 to 15,000 feet on Wednesday at the annual fly-in at the U.S. Forest Service tanker base at Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The impressive array of planes, helicopters and drones is unique to such a rural area, said San Juan National Forest spokeswoman Lorena Williams.

On June 5, two single-engine air tankers will arrive at the base in case of fire this season. Each has a capacity of 800 gallons fire retardant or water. The state agency has a large air tanker under contract, which can fly down to the base if needed.

Assistant Air Tanker Base Manager Dave Hautamaki said the base can host five to six large air tankers, each with a capacity of 3,000 to 4,000 gallons.

As stakeholders place an increasing emphasis on interagency collaboration, leaders at those agencies say events such as the fly-in are critical in enabling personnel to work together.

The Colorado Department Of Public Safety’s Multi Mission Aircraft on Wednesday at the annual fly-in at the U.S. Forest Service tanker base at Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Logan Davis, battalion chief with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said the day is “huge” for coordination and allows firefighters to know “what air attack needs to hear from ground personnel so that when you are the ground personnel on the other side of the radio talking to an airplane that is somewhere in the sky that you can’t see, you can know how to describe to them your location, what you would like to see from them, and vice versa.”

“This area is pretty unusual in the amount of cooperation between agencies,” said DFPD Wildfire Battalion Chief Scott Nielsen, standing in the shade under the wing of the aerial supervision aircraft.

Perhaps the biggest advancement in aerial firefighting resources is the increasing dependence on unmanned aerial systems – or drones.

Dan Paladino, an unmanned aircraft systems pilot with the U.S. Forest Service, demonstrates how drones can drop pingpong ball-like fire starters on Wednesday at the annual fly-in at the U.S. Forest Service tanker base at Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Dan Paladino and Tyler Hoest, the two drone pilots with the Columbine Wildland Fire Module, said the fly-in gives them the opportunity to discuss the UAS program with firefighters who are not yet used to working with drones.

The drones, which cost less than 10% of what a helicopter with similar capabilities would cost, allow firefighters to map and even set fire remotely. Unlike their piloted counterparts, drones can fly at night and can travel through thick smoke.

But, drones are also new to firefighting – the Columbine Wildland Fire Module was the first Forest Service fire crew in the country to start using drones back in 2019.

“We’re trying to educate people on the capabilities, the limitations and how we operate within the manned aviation airspace and how we do that as safely as possible,” Hoest said. “That’s our main mission, is to deconflict with other manned assets that are in the air so we don’t crash this thing into a helicopter.”

Flight For Life crew members Ian Reynolds, pilot; and flight nurses Katy Watson, center, and Nicole Salafia; talk about how they treat patients who need air transport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

After last year’s fruitful monsoon and the abundant snow that followed, fire officials are not as concerned about this year’s wildfire season as compared with some in recent memory.

Still, Nielsen said, the drought season to come will likely affect the availability of ground fuels, determining the severity of wildfire impacts.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

This article has been updated to accurately reflect the organization for whom Logan Davis works. He is a battalion chief with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Zane Muhonen, program manager of the Mesa Verde Helitack helicopter team, describes some of the short-haul equipment that is used to extract injured people on Wednesday at the annual fly-in at the U.S. Forest Service tanker base at Durango-La Plata County Airport.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs helicopter, usually stationed on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, was in attendance Wednesday at the annual fly-in at the U.S. Forest Service tanker base at Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)


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