As of Aug. 27, Hill Air Force Base had directly supported 138 U.S. Forest Service sorties, which had dropped a total of over 2.2 million pounds or 245,000 gallons of fire retardant on 32 separate wildfires covering four states, said Lt. Col. Joseph Rojas, 75th Operations Support Squadron commander. Those states included Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming.
And as anyone looking at the hazy skies in Utah can see, the fire season is not over. With recent winds out of the northwest, the fires in Idaho have brought a smoky haze into Northern Utah. U.S. Forest Service firefighting aircraft may be stationed at Hill Air Force Base during the fire season as needed, and more planes can be brought in.
Hill is particularly well suited to aid aerial firefighting efforts, said Maj. Kristopher Long, 75th OSS director of operations. "Hill is strategically located between several Western states that are chronically threatened by seasonal forest fires, so aircraft deployed here can quickly travel to regional forest fire threat areas. When a firefighting mission needs to occur, U.S. Forest Service personnel stationed here at Hill can rapidly perform all the required mission planning and preparation, and take off with little delay and short transit times. Our air traffic control tower and our base operations teams ensure the U.S. Forest Service gets expedient air space approval and clearance, and our Transient Alert team helps guide and position the aircraft quickly as they taxi to and from the runway."
Rojas, his commander, emphasized, "As members of the various communities at large, the Airmen here at the 75th Operations Support Squadron, and in fact, all Airmen at Hill Air Force Base consider it a privilege to assist the U.S. Forest Service with their efforts in protecting the property and lives of our fellow citizens."
Long said, "Brian Watson, our air field manager, closely liaisons with the Forest Service. They are basically talking to each other daily. Hill takes all aviation support requirements very seriously whether they are transient aircraft that are here for a weapons evaluation program, whether they are local aviators who live here like the 388th or 419th Fighter Wings or whether you are talking about the Forest Service or anyone else. At the end of the day we're all part of the same U.S. government whether we are military or civilian. Everybody's got an important mission so we have to posture the air field resources and assets we have to be responsive to everybody and our guys work really hard to make sure that happens."
The federal government does have a contract to provide fuel for larger firefighting air tankers from the base if needed, said Long. Mostly they provide command and control support on the air field and space for the necessary loading of fire retardant.
Bart Littlefield, U.S. Forest Service air tanker base manager explained that the Single Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) require jet fuel, which can be fueled through the base air contract. Larger twin-engined P2V Neptunes use Avgas. The P2Vs hold 2,082 gallons of liquid fire retardant.
The fire retardant is mixed on site with water and then pumped into the firefighting aircraft, in a proportion of one part fire retardant to five parts water.
Littlefield said that August was an unusually quiet month with June being the month with the most fire activity. September has heated back up with fires in Wyoming and Idaho requiring assistance from the Forest Service
Website data for the Forest Service Eastern Great Basin region which includes Northern Utah shows a total of 2,254 fires in the region as of Sept. 18; 1,266 of which were caused by lightning. Those fires consumed 1,455,279 acres. Fires caused by human activity totaled 988, and consumed 531,990 acres.
Air Force Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System-equipped C-130s were briefly stationed at Hill this summer but as firefighting needs adjusted they were moved elsewhere.
The area the Forest Service covers in the immediate area around Hill AFB with its firefighting section in Northern Utah is known as the Eastern Great Basin, which stretches from the border with Nevada, up into Idaho and over toward the border with Wyoming.
"The Air Force has been great to us," Littlefield said.