$4.9 million helibase opens in northern Arizona to help mitigate wildfires

Apr 17, 2024, 11:00 AM | Updated: 11:03 am

PHOENIX — The latest state-of-the-art helibase recently opened in northern Arizona to help with wildfire mitigation efforts, officials announced Tuesday.

The $4.9 million facility is located near Star Valley, 7 miles east of Payson.

It will aid in supporting the Payson Ranger District’s crisis strategy for reducing wildfire risk and serve as a logistical hub, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“The helibase has a three-fold mission: fire suppression, supporting fuel reduction projects and supporting land management activities,” Daniel Whatley, the Payson Ranger District fire management officer, said in a press release.

“During a wildfire, helicopters deliver water, equipment and crews to suppress or reduce the spread of a wildfire.”

Fire suppression, mitigation and more: What else to expect from latest helibase

The facility will be able to handle up to three helicopters at a time, helping the Tonto National Forest better fight fires.

It will have five permanent workers and can accommodate a crew of 10 firefighters from April to September.

The helibase will help with projects in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), which includes a treatment area of 2.4 million acres across the Kaibab, Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests.

“In addition to fire suppression, the helibase’s mission will aid fuel reduction projects,” Whatley said.

“Helicopters equipped with aerial ignition capabilities can fly a few hundred feet off the ground and dispense spheres – similar to ping pong balls – into remote areas within the project landscape. The chemical inside the spheres creates an exothermic reaction that ignites ground fuels for prescribed fires or wildland fire applications.”

Along with the 4FRI, the helibase could be used to support the San Carlos Apache Tribal Forest Protection landscape initiative.

Both initiatives – the San Carlos Reservation and 4FRI – are part of the U.S. Forest Service’s 10-year plan to address areas where wildfires pose the biggest threats to communities and infrastructure.

Here’s how the helibase is already being used

The facility was scheduled to support the 5,465-acre Diamond Point prescribed fire starting on Wednesday.

Fire officials are warning locals about anticipated smoke from the prescribed fire, and residents were asked to stay away from the area.

History: The helibase’s journey to (and from) Payson

In 1977, the Payson Ranger District initiated operations of a Forest Service helibase at the Ranger Station.

However, by 1999, flight operations were discontinued because of safety concerns arising from its proximity to Payson. Consequently, in the same year, the helibase was relocated to Roosevelt, Arizona.

The last move took place in 2001 to Payson Airport, which functioned as a temporary facility and required annual setup and dismantling by Forest Service crews.

“We are grateful to the town of Payson for hosting us at the airport all these years and to Gila County for supporting the location of our new facility next to the county’s maintenance yard,” Payson District Ranger Matt Paciorek said in the release. “Having great partners such as these is essential to a successful firefighting operation.”

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$4.9 million helibase opens in northern Arizona to help mitigate wildfires