Independent analysts have recommended the U.S. Forest Service keep the Medford Air Tanker Base open if other agencies will start paying part of the almost $245,000 annual cost of operating and maintaining the base.
The Forest Service commissioned the study earlier this year and recently made the results available.
The Medford Air Tanker Base is only 55 air miles from the Klamath Falls Air Tanker Base, prompting the Forest Service to take a look at closing one.
The Forest Service operates five tanker bases in the region with a combined budget of $1.1 million. The Medford and Klamath Falls bases together are consuming $630,531 — or 57 percent — of that total budget, the study said.
Operating and maintaining the Klamath Falls base costs $357,000 annually, the study said.
“Closure of either base at this time would be counterproductive to ensuring rapid response times to initial attack of fires since both bases are fully functional and in good condition,” Northstar Technology Corp. concluded in the study.
The study found that the savings from closing one base would be gobbled up by the $281,000 increased costs of flying retardant further distances from the one remaining base.
With two open, one base can keep operating if the other is socked in with smoke, the study said.
Forest Service officials said the trend of larger fires appears to be migrating northward, making reliance on the air tanker bases more vital for Western Oregon and Northern California.
While the analysis recommended keeping both bases open in the near-term, it recommended consolidating the bases in about 15 years if extensive repairs or improvements are needed at either base.
During this year’s fire season, aircraft from the Medford base delivered almost 1.5 million gallons of retardant, according to base statistics.
New Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George said he backs keeping the Medford base open.
“I will tell you that as far as I’m hanging around in this part of the country, I am going to throw my support behind keeping that base here and getting the resources that we need to make sure that it’s fully functional,” George told Jackson County commissioners this week. “Because when we’re running and gunning with all the fires, it’s really helpful to have a base close by.”
George said fire season, which once was largely confined to the summer months, now appears to be year-round.
“One only needs to look across the border to see the risks all the way into the middle of November,” he said, referring to the deadly Camp fire burning in California.
Since the idea of closing the Medford base first surfaced in the 1990s, commissioners have fought to keep it open.
Commissioners said the Medford base was especially critical this year, when a lightning storm sparked blazes across Southern Oregon on July 15, with several growing into large wildfires that choked the region in smoke.
“It would have been crazy in my opinion to even consider closing Medford down and we’re extremely fortunate to have it,” Commissioner Rick Dyer said. “We would probably be in an even worse situation without it.”
As of mid-October, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest had 84 fires that burned more than 220,000 acres. The Medford District BLM had 133 fires that burned 27,594 acres.
The Klondike fire west of Grants Pass has burned more than 175,000 acres primarily on Forest Service land in the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
The study of the tanker bases found in the past five years, 63.5 percent of the retardant use from the Medford base has been by non-Forest Service agencies — with the Oregon Department of Forestry using the bulk of that. ODF protects private timberland and contracts to fight fires on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land.
Other agencies using retardant from the base include the National Park Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
“From a business standpoint, the USFS can no longer afford to operate these two bases with the current funding structure when over 60 percent of the retardant delivered is for entities outside the USFS,” the study of the Medford and Klamath Falls bases concluded.
Other agencies pay for the retardant they use, flight time, landing fees and some other costs. But they don’t help cover all of the expenses borne by the Forest Service for running the Medford base, said Amanda Lucas-Rice, Southwest Oregon Interagency Unit Aviation Officer for the Forest Service and BLM.
“That’s the business model that isn’t working,” she said.
Talks are ongoing about having other agencies cover more base costs, Lucas-Rice said this week.
In the past, Lucas-Rice said, there was a plan for the Oregon Department of Forestry to take over the Medford base since ODF could operate it more efficiently under state rather than federal rules. However, that plan wasn’t put into action.
ODF has been covering $23,000 lease costs at the Medford base, the study reported.
Lucas-Rice said ODF also helps staff the base.
While the Forest Service pays $245,000 annually for operations and maintenance of the Medford base and $357,000 for the Klamath Falls base, those costs are dwarfed by total firefighting expenses for the region.
The Forest Service has spent more than $200 million in southwest Oregon, while ODF has spent $60 million over the last year, according to October estimates.
More recent figures were not immediately available.