An introduction to the Durango Airtanker Base

Helicopters and air tankers work out of the base in southwest Colorado

Durango Airtanker Base

The video below was posted to YouTube June 2, 2020 by the Southwest Colorado Wildfire Coalition, with this description:

Air resources can be extremely valuable in fighting a wildland fire. In Southwestern Colorado, with the dry weather this year and high or very high fire danger, we’ve already seen several small fires. Some were sparked by lightning, some were human-caused. The Durango Air Tanker Base has pre-positioned two small tankers, along with the Durango Helitack crew and has more resources on the way in anticipation of an active fire season.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

100 firefighters attend aircraft Safety Fly-In at Durango

Durango Helitack crew
The Durango Helitack crew demonstrates crew loading.

Rick Freimuth sent us these photos and description of a Safety Fly-In that occurred Friday, May 31 at the Durango Air Tanker Base in Colorado. Mr. Freimuth staffs the Benchmark Lookout west of Telluride, Colorado where he normally would have been, starting three weeks ago, but snow on the roads has made that impossible. The tower is at 9,262′ elevation.

Yesterday I attended the San Juan National Forest Safety Fly-In event at the Durango Airtanker Base.  It’s an annual event (except last year because of our busy fire season) held for the local jurisdictions – USFS, BLM, NPS, Durango Fire & Rescue and other local towns and counties.  The Fly-In is designed to familiarize the firefighters with air-to-ground radio protocol, general aircraft safety, crew loading, hard landings (turning off fuel, electrical and rotor brakes).

Durango Helitack was represented with their Bell 205, pilot, crew manager and crew.  They demonstrated sling load loading and hookups, bucket hookups and crew loading.  To increase performance for their older ship the 205 is hopped up with wider composite rotor blades, fins along the tail boom and the tail rotor is repositioned on the right side instead of the traditional 205 left side.  Interesting.  Of course Durango Helitack’s primary mission is IA but they also perform bucket work and rescues with the ability to carry two patients.

Mesa Verde National Park Helitack crew
Mesa Verde National Park Helitack crew member describes National Park Service aviation protocol.

Mesa Verde NP Helitack was there with their Bell 407.  They gave us a great demonstration of capabilities from their crew manager and one of their IA firefighters.  Their primary mission is IA but are also equipped for bucket work and they are the only Short Haul capable crew in the Four Corners area.  They’re capable of in-cabin litter transport as well.

Flight For Life’s orange A-Star 350 based at Durango’s Mercy Regional Medical Center was there with pilot, flight nurse and paramedic.  They talked about their protocol as well as their A-Star’s excellent capabilities at high altitude rescue in the local San Juan mountain ranges.  They gave an excellent demonstration of patient loading with firefighters assisting.

An interesting addition to the Fly-In was a Bell 206 from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad excursion train.  Simply referred to as the train helicopter.  It’s mission is to follow the train up and down the route for fire suppression in case the coal burning engines ignite fuels in their right-of-way.  They carry a 75 gallon bucket filled 3/4 full for several hours a day looking for smoke.  The reason for the reduced fill is to increase fuel efficiency during the day at high altitudes.

Durango airport Oshkosh crash rescue truck
Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck.

The Durango-LaPlata County airport showcased one of their two, huge Oshkosh fire engines including a thorough discussion of the airport firefighters duties and responsibilities for the myriad aircraft that may land at the field in emergency situations.

The most interesting aircraft, for me, was the State of Colorado’s Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA).  The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control has two Pilatus PC-12 airplanes that have been outfitted with state-of-the-art fire detection infrared (IR) and color sensors (EO) operated by sensor operators from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control Wildland Fire Management staff.  The pilot, Carl Gordon and sensor operator, Jesse, gave us a complete description of their real-time fire mapping capabilities.  Jesse said they were able to send their maps to the ICs and firefighters within twenty minutes of flying the fire.  The firefighters are then able to access the up-to-date fire maps on Avenza.

PC-12 multimission durango airport
Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 multimission aircraft, and Durango airport’s Oshkosh crash rescue truck.

The retardant base was an interesting station at the Fly-In.  We were given a thorough explanation of mixing Phos-Chek with water to create the loads appropriate to fuels and elevation.  Durango Airtanker Base is the highest elevation tanker base at 6,685′.  The retardant loads have to be altered to the summertime temperatures, high elevation of the airport and the, possibly, higher elevations of the fires.  Durango Airtanker Base’s retardant base is now able to fill two air tankers at a time.

sand table fire tactics wildfire
Jerran Flinders (center, wearing sandals) uses a sand “table” to explain air attack strategy, with Mike Bryson, on the right.

The last station at our Fly-In event was the sand table (sand box in our case).  Jerran Flinders, the San Juan National Forest’s Aviation Officer and Mike Bryson, the Durango Airtanker Base Manager gave the attending firefighters scenarios of making a resource order for air tankers or helicopters on an active fire.  The sand box had a fire climbing a slope through timber and approaching a ridge-top structure.  Jerran lead the scenarios through requesting aircraft, communicating with air attack and delivering the retardant load.  This was an excellent demonstration, for green firefighters, of what to do and what not to do during a wildfire event.

The Safety Fly-In was attended by roughly one hundred fire staff including firefighters, fire overhead, and one lookout.