State-of-the-art helibase opens on Payson Ranger District

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Contact(s): Susan Blake

Three-fold mission increases capability to confront wildfire crisis

Forest Service sits in yellow helicopter waiting to take off.
Helitack Lead Superintendent Anthony “Cheeto” Ramirez, sits in the N6HE helicopter at the Payson Helibase April 15, 2024. The helibase is located in Star Valley, Arizona, on the Tonto National Forest Payson Ranger District and officially opened on April 16. USDA Forest Service photo by Madeline Bautista.

PHOENIX, April 16, 2024 — The USDA Forest Service’s newest, permanent helibase is now operating on the Payson Ranger District. Forest Service officials say the $4.9 million facility will play a major role in suppressing wildfires in Arizona and supporting the agency’s wildfire crisis strategy for reducing wildfire risk to communities and improving resilience of Arizona’s forests.

Located next to Gila County’s maintenance yard near Star Valley, the helibase will be used to support the upcoming 5,465-acre Diamond Point prescribed fire. According to Daniel Whatley, the Payson Ranger District Fire Management Officer, the facility and crews can host and refuel up to three helicopters, enhancing the Tonto’s wildfire prevention efforts in central Arizona. Managed and staffed by the Payson Ranger District, the helibase will house five permanent staff and accommodate a 10-person helitack crew from April through September.

“The helibase has a three-fold mission: fire suppression; supporting fuel reduction projects; and supporting land management activities,” Whatley said. “During a wildfire, helicopters deliver water, equipment and crews to suppress or reduce the spread of a wildfire.”

Greater Payson Restoration

This spring, the Tonto began work on the Greater Payson Restoration project, a large-scale plan to reduce the risk of wildfires to the town of Payson and surrounding communities. Under an agreement with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, the Greater Payson Restoration project along with the Dude Fire and Haigler Restoration mastication projects will treat thousands of acres on the Tonto as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. Commonly referred to as 4FRI, this project also encompasses the Kaibab, Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The total treatment area is about 2.4 million acres across these forests.

“In addition to fire suppression, the helibase’s mission will aid fuel reduction projects,” Whatley said. “Helicopters equipped with aerial ignition capabilities can fly a few hundred feet off the ground and dispense spheres – similar to ping pong balls – into remote areas within the project landscape. The chemical inside the spheres creates an exothermic reaction that ignites ground fuels for prescribed fires or wildland fire applications.”

The helibase’s support of land management activities might also involve using helicopters to deliver personnel, equipment and materials in support of ecosystem, watershed or wildlife projects in the 4FRI landscape.

San Carlos Apache Tribal Forest Protection

Along with 4FRI, the helibase’s diverse mission could support the San Carlos Apache Tribal Forest Protection landscape initiative. This landscape includes 3 million acres of National Forest System lands (Tonto, Apache-Sitgreaves and Coronado National Forests) as well as San Carlos Reservation lands. For cross-boundary landscape restoration, the Forest Service is working with the San Carlos Apache Tribe to build on the two Tribal Forest Protection Act projects they initiated. Work on the landscape will protect international waters shared with the Tribe, associated drinking water systems, and residential areas.

San Carlos Apache Tribal Forest Protection and 4FRI are two of 21 landscapes identified by the Forest Service for fuel reduction and forest restoration treatments. These landscapes are part of the Forest Service’s 10-year strategy to address the wildfire crisis in locations where wildfires pose the most immediate threats to communities, watersheds and infrastructure. For more information about the Forest Service’s wildfire crisis strategy, visit the Confronting the Wildfire Crisis web page.

Payson’s Helibase History

Exterior of building with a walkway that leads to an office door on the left and a tall garage to the right
The USDA Forest Service’s newest, permanent helibase operates on the Payson Ranger District within the Tonto National Forest in Star Valley, Arizona, April 15, 2024. USDA Forest Service photo by Madeline Bautista.

Payson Ranger District began hosting a Forest Service helibase at the Ranger Station in 1976. By 1999, helicopters no longer could fly in or out of the helibase due to its proximity to the town of Payson. This led to relocating the helibase to Roosevelt, Arizona, in 1999. Logistics resulted in the helibase’s relocation to Payson Airport in 2001 as a temporary, seasonal facility that required Forest Service crews to set up and break down the helibase annually.

Payson District Ranger Matt Paciorek noted the positive relationship between his district and Payson regarding the need for a helibase.

“We are grateful to the Town of Payson for hosting us at the airport all these years and to Gila County for supporting the location of our new facility next to the county’s maintenance yard,” Paciorek said. “Having great partners such as these is essential to a successful firefighting operation.”

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 funded the helibase and includes provisions for modernizing Forest Service aviation facilities. A recent infrastructure bill provided additional funding. The Forest Service awarded the contract to KOO Design Build, Inc., of Scottsdale, Arizona.

For More Information

For additional information about the helibase or related projects on the Payson Ranger District, contact the Payson Ranger Station located at 1009 E. Highway 260, Payson, Arizona. Or call the station at 928-474-7900 Monday – Friday between 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 - 4:30 p.m.

For the latest news and information about the Tonto National Forest, follow along on Facebook @TontoNationalForest, ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) @TontoForest or Instagram @tontonationalforest.