The U.S. Forest Service is considering establishing a permanent helitack base and possibly other firefighting and training facilities on a site adjacent to and north of Payson Municipal Airport.
The eight-person Tonto Helitack unit, one of 96 such teams in the United States, was stationed at the airport on a temporary basis this summer. Helitack units provide rapid response/initial attack capabilities, landing near a fire when possible, and rappelling from a helicopter to the fire when not.
"We're kind of looking at potential sites where we could develop a base out there, a permanent base, and that's going to be in the works real soon," Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District, said.
The current plan is for the town to purchase two parcels totaling 51 acres with a grant from the Arizona Department of Transportation. The Forest Service would lease about 20 acres and the remainder would be leased for economic development, according to Payson Mayor Barbara Brewer.
"It would be a real shot in the arm because the lease on that amount of property would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $65,000 to $70,000 a year, and that money would go into airport coffers to help make it more self sustaining," she said.
Besides a helitack base, Armenta would like to see the new base accommodate other aircraft operations and possibly include training facilities.
"It could also be that when we do have our large fires out there, we could have a single engine air tanker base," he said. "That's something I'm really interested in -- getting a couple of SEATs assigned up here, at least during the severity season."
According to Brewer, ADOT is very interested in the project.
"They are so excited about the potential of the Forest Service having a full-time firefighting hangar up here because we're so centrally located that they suggested to (Airport Manager) Ted (Anderson) that maybe we should put in the request right away for the $1.2 million to buy it."
Anderson explained the procedure and where the project currently stands.
"Preliminary meetings with the Forest Service have been completed, we've met with ADOT officials, so based on that we've inputted it into our five-year airport capital improvement program (ACIP)," he said. "Once ADOT reviews the ACIPs that come in from a number of airports it will be given a money allocation and a priority, and then hopefully we will be given a grant."
At one time, Armenta said, the helitack base was located at the Payson Ranger Station on Highway 260, but it was moved to Tonto Basin because of noise and other complaints, and because the town, at that time, was not interested in having the facility at the airport.
"They did an analysis and it turned out Tonto Basin was the best place to keep it because it was centrally located," Armenta said. "But since then we've started looking at where the majority of the flight time is spent and where the majority of the fires are that the helitack crew goes on, and it's up here in Payson. We want to do what makes the most sense and I think this is a good move."
"Then we'll have full-time protection up here," she said. "I'll feel more comfortable knowing if something happens, these Forest Service planes are already here."
Armenta said the town is now eager to work with the Forest Service on the project.
"We've started talking to and working with Ted Anderson, and Ted has been a tremendous partner," he said. "Knowing that the town and the airport want us out there now, we have decided to relocate the hangar permanently up here."
In the meantime, the Forest Service will continue to operate as it has in the past, with temporary facilities at the airport.