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Durango Air Tanker Base to undergo renovations

San Juan National Forest will invest more than $1 million to keep the critical firefighting resource up to date
The U.S. Forest Service plans to spend more than $1 million on maintenance at Durango Air Tanker Base at Durango-La Plata County Airport to ensure that aerial firefighting resources can continue to respond quickly to fires in the Four Corners. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Durango Air Tanker Base at the Durango-La Plata County Airport will receive some much-needed maintenance.

San Juan National Forest, which operates the base, plans to spend more than $1 million to renovate the facility so that it can continue to support rapid firefighting responses in the Four Corners.

“We’re investing in construction to upgrade the (base) ramp to a more modern facility and to replace some of the pavement that needs to be replaced,” said Scott Owen, spokesman for San Juan National Forest.

The base ramp, which is where planes are loaded with fire retardant, will be resurfaced. The U.S. Forest Service has been following the wear on the ramp and recognized that it needed maintenance to extend its life span, Owen said.

“It’s just like a road, but when you’re pumping thousands of gallons of retardant into a plane, it causes it to wear down pretty quickly,” he said. “Like a road or driveway or a sidewalk, it reaches the end of (its) usable life.”

The Forest Service is allocating money for the project and San Juan National Forest has planned for the maintenance in its capital-improvement plan. The agency has labeled the project a priority, but has not yet contracted for the construction, Owen said.

An air tanker makes a slurry drop on the east side of the Animas Valley in June 2012, north of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
Fire retardant covers the back of the C-130 Hercules air tanker June 15, 2018, at Durango Air Tanker Base. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Owen could not confirm the cost of the updates, but he said the Forest Service would invest more than $1 million to make sure that the critical firefighting base can support quick responses to wildfires in the Four Corners.

With four fires already in May and June, the Durango Air Tanker Base currently hosts five planes and four helicopters.

“Since we’re very dry right now and we’re one of the hot spots of the (Rocky Mountain) region with fire danger, they’ve stationed a lot here for initial attacks so those small fires that start we can get them before they grow too big,” Owen said.

Recently, the Forest Service has made significant investments in air tanker bases in the region, announcing last week that it would use $15 million to upgrade the Cibola National Forest Air Tanker Base at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque to allow larger planes to use the facility.

In May, the Forest Service officially opened its new air tanker base in Colorado Springs, a nearly $9.5 million project that can support Very Large Air Tankers, which can hold up to 9,000 gallons of fire retardant, according to the Forest Service.

The Grand Junction Air Center tanker base was also allocated money for repairs last year.

While constructing the Colorado Springs Air Tanker Base, the fourth in Colorado, the Forest Service did an internal review of the Durango Air Tanker Base, but found that its firefighting response could not be outsourced to other bases, Owen said.

“They determined it was infeasible to close this tanker base (because) we wouldn’t have the initial attack capability here,” Owen said.

The U.S. Forest Service’s Durango Air Tanker Base at Durango-La Plata County Airport in May 2020. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Colorado Springs base was designed to strengthen the aerial firefighting response within a 300-mile radius. While Durango is just under 300 miles to Colorado Springs, a number of factors limit the effectiveness of the Colorado Springs base in the Four Corners.

“The fuel type we have here burn pretty quickly so we have to get air assets on it,” Owen said. “If it’s two hours, that’s going to be a big difference from 20 minutes.”

The Durango Air Tanker Base can serve as a primary source for firefighting aerial support in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, making the base a critical asset, Owen said.

“It’s really the only air tanker base between Grand Junction, Colorado Springs and down by Albuquerque, so it services a big area,” he said. “We’re lucky to have the resources here and it’s not going anywhere.”


The Durango Air Tanker Base at Durango-La Plata County Airport supports four large tankers and other aircraft fighting the Lightner Creek Fire in June 2017. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

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