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Air tanker critical for Medford, county says

Jackson County commissioners sent a letter this week to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden asking for his support to keep the Medford air tanker base open.

Aircraft, including giant air tankers, fly out of the base at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport to dump loads of retardant on wildfires.

But a team of evaluators is collecting information about air tanker bases in Medford and Klamath Falls for the U.S. Forest Service.

The team will submit a report and recommendation to either keep both bases operational or consolidate the two bases, according to the letter sent by commissioners.

Medford’s air tanker base has been targeted for closure in the past.

A National Air Tanker Base study completed in 1996 said keeping the Klamath Falls base operating was the best choice. Forest Service officials said they had enough funding for only one air tanker base in southwestern Oregon, especially since both bases required significant investments to meet standards, according to news reports at the time.

A plan to close the Medford base kicked off years of effort by Jackson County officials to keep it open.

In the letter sent this week, commissioners said the Medford base is a critical component of the fire safety network for the states of Oregon and California.

“Therefore, any closure or reduction in service is a public safety issue at its core,” the letter said.

The Medford airport has invested time, resources and money in the air tanker facilities, the letter said.

Additionally, the Forest Service has invested significant financial resources to make the Medford base suitable for single-engine air tankers and massive planes known as Very Large Air Tankers and Super Tankers, the letter said.

Local businesses have also invested in the base. Superior Air Center, which is known as Million Air, has 115,000 gallons of fuel storage capacity and four state-of-the-art fuel trucks with high speed pumps, the letter said.

The Klamath Falls base, in contrast, can store 30,000 gallons of fuel. Airplanes are sometimes diverted to the Medford airport when the Klamath Falls base runs out of fuel or its single fuel truck has mechanical issues, the letter said.

Another business at the Medford airport, Medford Jet Center, provides full-service aircraft maintenance, the letter said.

In the wider community, Jackson County has more hotels, rental cars and restaurant choices, as well as passenger flights in and out of the airport for air tanker employees, the letter said.

County officials held a work session to talk about the air tanker base issue earlier this month.

Although the Medford and Klamath Falls bases are relatively close at only 60 miles apart, the Medford base extends air tanker protection out to the Oregon Coast and up into Douglas County, according to Jackson County officials.

Because of its lower elevation, planes can fly out from Medford with heavier loads of fire retardant, Airport Director Jerry Brienza said at the meeting.

Planes flying out of Medford not only battle forest fires, they helped douse a 2009 fire that swept the Deer Ridge neighborhood on the flanks of Roxy Ann Peak, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said.

“We don’t want to lose that,” he said.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said there are numerous reasons for keeping an air tanker base in Medford.

“It’s a pretty obvious and compelling case,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.