BLM firefighting

Pilot Myles Elsing of Western Pilot Service explains the aerial firefighting work he does for the Idaho BLM during a field day at Twin Falls on June 26.

TWIN Falls, Idaho — The Bureau of Land Management’s Twin Falls District is the second-largest district in the state, covering 3.9 million acres — a lot to manage when it comes to wildfires in the high-desert region.

But the district’s fire program reaches far beyond the physical confines of south-central Idaho. The center of operations is the BLM airbase located at the Magic Valley Regional Airport outside Twin Falls, and it is a hub of service for a much broader region.

In the fight against western fires, coordinated by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, it is considered a large air tanker base, Kelsey Brizendine, the district’s fire information officer, said during a field tour sponsored by the Twin Falls Soil and Water Conservation District.

“It’s pretty impressive what this air base can produce,” she said.

Last year was record-setting for the airbase. It reloaded aircraft with 956 loads of fire retardant totaling more than 1.5 million gallons at a cost of almost $8.9 million to fight fires in Idaho and neighboring states.

The airbase has one helicopter, one air attack aircraft that acts as an air traffic controller and two single engine air tankers assigned to it. But many more firefighting aircraft are available to the airbase through the Interagency Fire Center depending on need.

The center coordinates and shifts aircraft throughout the fire season so resources are close enough to respond to fires. Depending on the fire season, what’s flying in and out of the airbase can really change, Brizendine said.

The air tanker base supports firefighting efforts in Idaho, Utah and Nevada and sometimes in border areas of Washington and Oregon. If aircraft need more retardant, they come to Twin Falls to reload, she said.

The district’s air attack aircraft logged a total of 144 flights and 437 flight hours, including 28 extended flights that basically flew all day. The aircraft worked 31 of the biggest fires in the West at a cost of nearly $779,000.

The district’s helicopter and helitack crew flew nearly 400 hours, addressing 292 large incidents and three project fires. The efforts delivered about 1,700 firefighters, 692,000 gallons of water or retardant and 353,000 pounds of cargo such as hoses, pumps and chainsaws.

The district also sends crews and engines out to other areas to help fight fires but not necessarily aircraft, she said.

In the Twin Falls District, BLM equipment includes 20 engines — the largest and most diverse engine program in BLM nationwide — three water tenders and three dozers, in addition to the four aircraft, she said.

Last year, the district’s fire season started early, Jan. 30, and lasted into October for a total of 116 fires and 235,429 acres burned. The count was about double the district’s 10-year average of 54 fires and 128,812 acres burned.

Lightning started 33 of the fires, and humans caused 83. BLM estimated about 60% of the human-caused fires in Idaho last year were shooting-related associated with ammunition, exploding targets and shooting at steel-type targets.

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