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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lewiston airport a hub for recharging firefighting planes

By Ralph Bartholdt Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – With its 6,511-foot runway, the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport can accommodate large tanker planes that forest fire-quenching operations in the Northwest often require.

The airport’s wide footprint allows ample room for a staging area for fire operations and its tanks of suppressant. The tanks are used to recharge firefighting planes with a gas stationlike efficiency.

With that in mind, the U.S. Forest Service moved a small air tanker base onto the airport’s southern perimeter earlier this summer as a jumping off point for its north central Idaho firefighting operations.

A similar operation last summer was the Idaho hub of air attack that dumped suppressant on fires that charred forestland along the Clearwater River at Orofino and Kamiah, and in northeastern Oregon and southeast Washington.

Work on the Grangeville airport last year – which continues this summer – is one of the reasons air operations were moved to Lewiston. The length of the airstrip here is another.

“The only other airports that are set up as air tanker bases are in Moses Lake, Boise and Billings,” said Stan Bercovitz with the U.S. Forest Service, who manages the small air tanker base at the Lewiston airport.

So far this summer, the Lewiston base, comprised of two pilots and a nine-person crew that includes ground, maintenance and supervisory personnel, has flown on seven fires from eastern Oregon to Montana – including the 1,200-acre Snake River Fire earlier this month.

In addition to stemming the fire threat, the base has been a temporary shot of income for the airport, which is paid rental fees and for other services.

Bercovitz, a former smokejumper who oversees the tanker contingent on the southern end of the airfield, said the base also infuses cash into the local economy.

“We’ve got 11 people here renting cars, motel rooms, eating meals and buying things, so we try to do our part,” he said.

The agency contracts with a Post Falls company called Phos-Chek for its suppressant – and the equipment used to pump it into the fuselage of planes.

Steve Parker, a pilot from Rigby, is one of two pilots under contract with Queen Bee Air Specialties of Rupert, Idaho. He and South Dakota pilot Doug Sly work under a $202,000, 70-day Idaho Department of Lands contract for air attack service with their employee, Queen Bee Air Specialties of Rupert. Parker spends part of his ground time in a lawn chair, under a belt of shade from the 60-foot wingspan of his AT-802 – also called a SEAT, for “single-engine air tanker,” and commonly referred to as a crop duster – waiting to be mobilized.

“Most of the fires have started around 4 or 5 in the afternoon,” Parker said.

That’s about the time the sun has taken a slumbering effect on the pilots and ground crew, so he stays busy, getting in workouts by jumping rope, running on the tarmac and pushing tractor tires around for an energy upsurge, he said.

For much of the day, however, crews hunt shade in the treeless expanse of the airfield.

“There isn’t much shade to be found around here,” said Bonnie Gardner, an air tanker base technician from Grangeville.

They improvise by setting up folding chairs under the 8,000-gallon tank that holds concentrated suppressant, or moving to one of the air-conditioned containers when the sun hits its zenith.

After the 9 a.m. briefing that ushers in each morning, many of the crew work on their own projects – they read, study for graduate school, and one of the ground crew members builds beehives for his apiary back home – as they wait on a fire call.

Today’s briefing is much the same as the one the day before. As Old Glory lethargically flaps in a morning breeze, Bercovitz reads from a weather printout.

“The fire weather forecast for Idaho … northwest flow … drier weather …,” he said.

So far, the base has applied 40,000 gallons of retardant to fires in the region.

“Chance of wetting rain, zero percent,” according to Bercovitz’s printout.

The tanker base has been a locale of interest for residents who sometimes drive by for a look.

“We get about 10 or 15 cars every day driving by,” Bercovitz said.

A farmer who stopped by last week inquired about the suppressant.

It’s ammonium polyphosphate with added color, a clay thickener, “and a secret ingredient,” said Lou Gildemeister, Phos-Chek regional manager who checked in at the Lewiston base this week on his way home from fires in Wyoming wearing aviator sunglasses and a Lava Mountain Fire T-shirt.

The concentrate must be mixed with water to be effective and, environmentally, it acts as a fertilizer, Gildemeister said.

“Chance of wetting rain, zero percent,” Bercovitz keeps reading from his weather printout.

“Historically, things start here, now,” he said.

The 11-person contingent has been a welcome addition at the airport, Manager Chris Hayes said. In addition to the $1,900 per month the base pays for space, the airport gets paid by fuel vendors to supply the planes.

“It’s a good deal for the airport and it’s a god deal for the community,” Hayes said.

When he’s through reading the forecast, touching on the fire danger nationally, regionally and locally, Burcovitz routinely asks if anyone needs anything before dryly adding a last comment.

“Remember to eat the doughnuts in the crew trailer,” is his refrain. “There’s only a week left before they go stale.”