Firefighting Helicopter Relocated At Airport Following Dispute

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The Type 1, large-tanker helicopter stationed at the Payson Airport for the peak fire season months played a pivotal role in extinguishing a small fire on Monday.

The Round Fire, south of the Mazatzal Casino and north of Round Valley, only amounted to about five acres before crews had it contained, which doesn't make it especially extraordinary after the 4,000-plus acre Promontory Fire.

The presence of the helicopter, however, may have ensured that the Round Fire didn't threaten the south end of Payson, as it perhaps could have, otherwise.

The importance of the Type 1 helicopter is paramount to firefighting efforts, said Robert Ortlund, district fire management officer in Payson.

"The Round Fire would've definitely been a bigger fire without the helicopter," he said. "It would've been threatening homes on the south side of Payson.

"We've seen some real critical fires and when we have those fires in this critical condition, they're hard to knock down. The helicopter is instrumental to give firefighters an edge to fight the fire."

Currently, the helicopter is based at the Payson Municipal Airport, through a Forest Service contract with the helicopter's owners Siller Brothers, Inc. However, in the past week, the Forest Service considered relocating the aircraft to another airport, possibly in Winslow, after problems with several private pilots.

Representatives at Siller Brothers had no comment on the situation.

Five or six individuals who pay a monthly $15 fee to have access to a gate at the west end of the airport where the helicopter is most ideally stationed, have interfered with and harassed helicopter pilots and driven recklessly through the area, said Ted Anderson, airport manager.

The gate is meant for use by private aircraft entering the airport, not for ordinary vehicles seeking a mile-long shortcut, he said.

One individual, whose name is not being released, pending the results of a police investigation, is possibly facing criminal damage charges for running over a fuel hose and destroying it.

Payson Police Commander Don Engler said the investigation was ongoing and, as of Wednesday afternoon, charges had not yet been filed for criminal damage to the helicopter's equipment.

Engler said he believed the situation was improving between the parties involved.

"I think we're able to get some things resolved," he said. "I believe (the individuals) were cooperating with the officers who talked to them."

Supervisor Tommie Martin said the individuals are acting recklessly and disrespectfully.

"It boggles my mind that residents of this town would harass members of a fire crew," she said.

Martin said that moving the helicopter, which can hold up to 700 gallons of water per trip, to Winslow or Show Low would inhibit quick response times on fires in the Payson Ranger District and around Payson and its outlying communities.

"It's an hour response, versus a 10-minute response," she said.

Currently, the Forest Service has moved the helicopter to the east end of the airport, where it will most likely stay until the issue is sorted out or the situation changes, Ortlund said.

"Security is a bigger issue than it was before (Sept. 11)," he said. "Airport security is no-nonsense now."

Although the helicopter is more secure at the east end of the airport, it causes some planes to alter their normal take-off and landing courses, Anderson said.

He said that some aircraft now have to do extra back-taxiing to avoid the large helicopter.

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