Basically, Awesome: The Medford Airtanker Base
Residents of the Rogue Valley are lucky regarding fire response times because the Medford Airtanker Base is located right at the Medford Airport. After all, not every community has an airtanker base in its backyard.
Justin Bohannan, the Airtanker Base Manager or ATBM, says for six or seven fire seasons, the very large airtankers (VLATs) had to have retardant loaded at the east cargo ramp on the airport instead of the main airtanker base because it couldn’t handle an aircraft that size. To supply the product over at the east cargo ramp required ordering a portable retardant base that could fill the VLATs.
However, this year, the airtanker base with support from the local, regional, and national offices has purchased the various tanks, pumps, equipment, and operations trailer to assemble an agency owned and operated Mobile Retardant System (MRB).
“Our new Retardant Trailer arrived recently, and the rest of the equipment needed will arrive over the next month or so, with a 46-foot operations trailer arriving later this summer,” says Bohannan. “It’s a huge cost savings for us, not to mention that we no longer have the three or four days wait when ordering one from dispatch.” He mentioned since he arrived in 2013, a couple of times when they tried to order a portable base, one wasn’t available, which is problematic during a busy fire season.
Bohannan arrived in Medford in 2013 as Assistant Manager of the Airtanker Base and became Manager in 2017. Prior to that, he was a Type 1 firefighter in 2001 in college, but one season working on a airtanker base and he liked it. He stuck with it after school, a far cry from the law career he had planned! From then on, he looked for positions working on airtankers and found Medford. “I really like the camaraderie, the adventure and the fun of the job,” he says. And apparently, he likes being very busy!
The Medford base has had record-breaking seasons in the last 10 years. The base loaded a record-breaking 1.65 million gallons of retardant in 2014 and in 2018 came a close second with 1.6 million gallons. An average year, like 2019 is about 300,000 gallons. That year, they flew 21 fires and dropped 164 loads. Compare that to 2020 when they provided 870,000 gallons to whomever needed it.
“We are an interagency base,” Bohannan points out. “That means any agency can go through our federal dispatch and order a load of retardant.” He says they provided a lot of help to the Almeda and Obenchain fires last year, even though the fires were not burning on federal lands, as well as the Slater Fire. Bohannan says they broke the daily record of retardant for the Obenchain Fire with 112,000 gallons out of the main Medford airtanker base on September 9th. The day prior on September 8th, they loaded 150,000 gallons for the Almeda Fire from both the main base and the VLAT MRB.
Bohannan says he is working on getting an airtanker or two based in Medford this summer. Airtankers are a national resource and can be called anywhere at any time, but COVID changed where they sit to wait.
“During COVID, they tried to have the aircraft always fly back to their home base every day to limit exposure to the pilots,” he says. “Normally, as fire season moves west, that also means longer flight times to get to a home base. This year, we plan to ask the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC), if a Large Airtanker (LAT) and/or a VLAT can be staged in Medford as its home base, once everything starts happening out west. That would be good for response times in this area.”
Bohannan says, “Before 2004, there were enough airtankers that every base had one or two, but not anymore.” Now the idea is just to create less bouncing around for the airtankers due to COVID.
This time of year, he says, the base is staffed for the summer. “There is an ODF Southwest Oregon District manager who works at the base with an assistant,” he adds, “as well as myself, my assistant manager, and two techs, so about six people. We also bring in local militia and other qualified folks from around the country to lend a hand when needed.”
Bohannan is the only full-time employee. His assistant works February to November, while the techs and ODF people work April to October. Much of the focus now is getting set up for the new portable retardant base but work also continues to make sure the new asphalt gets laid at the main base, records are updated and everyone gets training on a new touch screen radio console . They are also making sure the water separator system is functioning properly; the airtanker base is required to catch all the overflow water used to mix retardant and ensure its filtered and doesn’t just mix into ground water. Medford is also one of the airtanker bases that does “hot loading” meaning they can load an airtanker with retardant with the outboard engines still running, saving time on airtanker re-loading.
It doesn’t take a lot of people to operate the base, he says, but they need a lot of skills. “We are lucky to have good people from the state and federal agencies, but we also couldn’t do this without a lot of support from the local airport. They’ve been outstanding, from the tower, to the airport administration/operations, and our Fixed Base Operator (airport based service station) who provides the fuel to all firefighting aircraft; they are a big part of making us successful out here.”
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