Arkansas Wildfires Postpone Opening of Airtanker Base at Drake Field

It's likely to be summer before the U.S. Forest Service shifts its air-tanker base from the Fort Smith Regional Airport to Fayetteville.

The opening of the airtanker base at Drake Field in Fayetteville has been delayed because the service has been too busy fighting January forest fires in Oklahoma and Arkansas, said Cheryl Chatham, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service office at Hot Springs.

The shift was to occur in the fall last year, and then in the late spring this year, Chatham said.

When the construction at Fayetteville is complete, Drake Field will have one of 75 airtanker bases in the United States to provide temporary homes for the 16 air tankers flown for the forest service to fight fires, said Kathy Allred, air-tanker program manager for the forest service.

Most of the available planes are now stationed in Ardmore, Okla., and at Fort Smith to assist with firefighting in the region, Allred said.

Even after the tanker base is finished, it's likely to have aerial retardant planes such as the P-3 Orion stationed on site only during the late winter and spring. That's when the southeastern U.S. has the highest probability of forest fires, Allred said. In most years, that's from late February to the end of May, Allred said.

Having the planes in Fort Smith and Ardmore in January is unusual, Allred said.

The forest service explored long-term options in 2001 for tanker bases and evaluated five airports. They were Drake Field, the Fort Smith airport, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Highfill, Mena Intermountain Airport and Hot Springs Municipal Airport.

The forest service decided that Drake Field provided the best combination of fast response times to forest fires, highway proximity and the airport facilities needed to support the base, Chatham said.

Among Drake Field's advantages over Fort Smith was its proximity to the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri, said Johnny Lindsey, a fire management and aviation officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

A base in Fayetteville puts the plane within a 100-mile radius, or 20-minute flight, of portions of the Ouachita, Ozark-St. Francis and Mark Twain national forests.

Among Fayetteville's other advantages is its low number of other flights. The airport had been the center for commercial flights in Northwest Arkansas, but the airport eventually lost all of its commercial service to the regional airport that opened in 1998 in Highfill.

The P-3 Orion cargo plane, which is the plane most likely to be at Fayetteville once the base is complete, has a two-person crew. It can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The planes fly 140 mph and 150 feet above the tallest trees as they drop the red retardant in 1,000-foot stretches across a burning forest, Allred said.

Once a call for plane help is sought, the goal is to get the aerial retardant plane in the air within 20 minutes, Lindsey said.

For the city of Fayetteville, there's an economic advantage to having the forest service base and aerial retardant planes.

Since 2002, the Forest Service has paid $2,347 a month to lease 12 acres at the airport, said James Nicholson, the airport's financial coordinator. The 12 acres are east of the airport's runway and south of its control tower.

Once the plane arrives, the airport can expect more revenue because more fuel will be sold. While a private company sells fuel at the airport, the company must pay the airport 10 cents for each gallon sold, Nicholson said.

This article was published 01/15/2006

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