HUNTSVILLE — The U.S. Forest Service is working through a proposal that would relocate its Wasatch Helitack wildland firefighting team to a spot near the southeast end of Pineview Reservoir.
Sean Harwood, a ranger with the Forest Service’s Uinta-Wasatch-Cache Ogden District, said the agency is nearing the end of its second, 30-day public comment period on the proposal, which is open through July 6. Earlier this month, the agency also held an open house in Huntsville, detailing the specifics of the pending project.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Environmental Assessment on the proposal, the plan is to build a helibase on a nine-acre piece of Forest Service land near Huntsville, immediately east of the Anderson Cove Campground at Pineview Reservoir. The helibase would be used to house all of the operations of the Wasatch Helitack program, which uses four helicopters to carry out its primary mission of protecting “life, property and natural resources by providing professional initial attack of wildland fires.”
Harwood said the helitack crew and its helicopters are critical resources used in the suppression of wildland fires across Northern Utah, on all land jurisdictions. The crew was the first line of defense in the 2017 wildfire that burned 619 acres in and around the communities of Uintah and South Weber.
According to the USDA assessment on the proposal, the helibase would have three helipads, operations and warehouse buildings, vehicle parking, and a vehicle-based fuel containment area. Though the base would support four helicopters, it would only house up to three choppers at a time on site. The personnel associated with the project would include a crew of 33 firefighters, four pilots, and up to 14 contract employees.
Harwood said the operation is currently stationed at the Morgan County Airport in Mountain Green, but the team’s facility there has been under lease from Morgan County and the contract is set to expire in March 2022. Harwood said the Forest Service has essentially exhausted its ability to continue to pay for leased property. Harwood said the USFS is taking advantage of funds it received with the Wildland Fire Management portion of the 2018 Omnibus Bill, which repurposed $65 million to enhance firefighting operations throughout the United States. He said the proposed site is situated solely on National Forest System land, which means no more leasing.
“In order to get out of these expensive leasing scenarios, we determined it needed to be on Forest Service land,” Harwood said.
The proposed site is also well-suited for the helibase operation because on the eastern side of the Wasatch Range, it’s separated from commercial and military air operations on the western side, according to the environmental assessment.
Harwood said the initial relocation proposal was at the Ogden-Hinckley Airport, but after identifying a building at the airport that was ideal, negotiations with Ogden City stalled. Harwood said the lease on the Forest Service building on 25th Street, just east of Washington Boulevard, is also up soon and the idea was to move all operations there, along with the helitack crew, out to the airport.
Ogden Chief Administrative Officer Mark Johnson said the city was interested in bringing the helitack crew to the airport, but said there were some issues related to “non-aeronautical uses” the Forest Service was proposing, which wouldn’t have fit with some of the current regulations at the municipal facility. Harwood said locating at the airport would have also included ground lease expenses, which again, the Forest Service is trying to get away from.
After the current public comment period ends on July 6, Harwood said work will begin to develop a revised Environmental Assessment and a draft “decision memo.” Another 45-day objection period will open after that. Hardwood said there won’t be any construction timelines available until later on in the process.
For more information, go to rdcc.utah.gov/plpco/public/viewProject.action?projectId=79285.