Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Will air tankers still be based out of Ely?

Forest Service offers conflicting information about whether agency will discontinue use of the Ely Airport

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/18/18

REGIONAL— U.S. Forest Service officials have offered differing explanations on the future of firefighting air resources at the Ely Airport— and aren’t sure of the origins of a rumor that the …

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Will air tankers still be based out of Ely?

Forest Service offers conflicting information about whether agency will discontinue use of the Ely Airport

Posted

REGIONAL— U.S. Forest Service officials have offered differing explanations on the future of firefighting air resources at the Ely Airport— and aren’t sure of the origins of a rumor that the agency will no longer be stationing large firefighting tankers out of the facility.

The Forest Service is currently undertaking a national review of its use of aerial resources for fighting wildland fires, and that review includes examining where the federal agency can safely station some of its larger aircraft, such as C-130 tankers.

The C-130 Hercules, produced by Lockheed, is a four-engine turboprop transport plane commonly used by the U.S. military. Many older versions of the plane have been retrofitted over the years for wildland fire control, although the older craft have had a spotty safety record.

The large aircraft do require a longer runway for takeoffs and landings, and that’s prompted the Forest Service to review the current list of airports where it will station the planes in the future. Yet the runway at the Ely airport was recently extended specifically to accommodate the needs of the C-130 aircraft. That renovation, which tapped millions in federal, state, and local dollars, included input from the Forest Service to ensure the project met the agency’s requirements.

“We put a lot of money into that project,” said Ely Mayor Chuck Novak, “including FAA money and city money.” Novak said city officials are still trying to understand exactly what the Forest Service intends to do, but have gotten conflicting information to date.

They aren’t the only ones. Even many Forest Service officials aren’t sure what’s happening with the review or how word spread that both C-130s may no longer be stationed at either Ely or Hibbing. Superior National Forest spokesperson Kris Reichenbach said the review is still underway and no decisions have been made about the future use of the Ely airport. Yet an email obtained by the Timberjay suggests otherwise. In December, Rob Heavirland, forest aviation officer for the Chippewa and Superior national forests, wrote: “I just got word through our regional and national office that large air tankers will no longer work out of Ely due to concerns over runway length. C-130s can still operate out of Brainerd and Bemidji but Ely and Hibbing can no longer be used.”

While Forest Service officials acknowledge that Heavirland’s email was sent last month, they say they’ve yet to find the source for his claim regarding the northeastern Minnesota airports. “Nobody knows if the source of the information is even credible,” said Kawishiwi District Ranger Gus Smith, who described any plan to discontinue use of the Ely airport for tanker deployment as “crazy.”

Smith said the Ely airport is not only an inexpensive airport at which to stage, but also offers an ideal location to provide quick response along the southern edge of the boreal forest, where spring fire and even late summer fire conditions can be extreme. Indeed, the region has seen some of the Midwest’s largest wildfires in modern history in just the past dozen years, including the 2011 Pagami Creek fire, near Ely, that burned almost 93,000 acres within the Superior National Forest. Two other recent fires on the forest include the Ham Lake fire, which burned 75,000 acres in 2007, and the 2006 Cavity Lake fire, which burned almost 32,000 acres.

The Ely Airport was the closest major airport, capable of handling C-130s, to all three of those fires.

That’s one reason why Smith thinks the rumor regarding the Ely Airport is based on bad information. “If I’m wrong, it’s horrible,” Smith said. “But I really think someone just made a mistake and this will blow over,” he said.

Even so, the Forest Service is facing political pushback on the issue. When large tankers are stationed in communities, it provides an economic benefit as crews typically fill hotel rooms and frequent local restaurants and shops in their off hours. The planes can also purchase significant amounts of fuel from the airports where they operate.

In a letter this past week to the new Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke, Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan said the change would also limit the Forest Service’s ability to fight wildland fires in a portion of the state that is increasingly prone to large and devastating wildfires.

“In my view, it would be shortsighted to decrease the ability of the USFS to quickly respond to forest fires in the region by limiting the number of firefighting aircraft which utilize the Ely Municipal Airport,” stated Nolan in his Jan. 11 letter.

The Timberjay sought comment from aviation officer Heavirland for this story, but he did not respond to phone messages.

At this point, city officials in Ely haven’t waded too far into the issue, but are waiting to get a clearer picture of exactly what the Forest Service might be thinking. “At this point, we still don’t have a straight answer,” said Novak.

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