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Forest Service firefighting facility moving forward, thanks to alignment of multiple community partners

JASON CHANEY - The helibase is going in on the north end of the airport. Ground clearing recently began and the contract calls for the facility to be up and running by next April.

It was supposed to be a temporary solution.

Fifteen years ago, the Ochoco National Forest located a helicopter base on the Prineville Airport. The plan was to eventually build a permanent facility, but as the years went by, the project failed to materialize.

Finally, that will change. Work has begun on the Central Oregon Helibase, which will serve as the Forest Service's new firefighting helicopter rappel base.

Airport Manager Kelly Coffelt remembers that when he was first hired to operate the facility eight years ago, there had been ongoing discussions about building a rappel base.

"They have always wanted to do it. It has just been timing and funding and a multitude of different things to get there," he said. "It has taken us this long to get there." Once compoleted, the facility will feature a 9,999 square-foot building with multiple amenities, such as restrooms, showers, a workout area, office space, an information technology area, a chute repair shop and more. This building will join three helicopter pads — two for medium-sized helicopters and one for larger helicopters. The total footprint of the facility will cover about half of a nine-acre portion of land set aside for the helibase and its future growth.

The facility will be located on the north end of the airport, near Tom McCall Road and Aviation Boulevard.

Crook County Commissioner Brian Barney, who has played a prominent role in launching the project, said the helibase was given a notice to proceed on July 1.

"We have started the earth work," he said. "We just about have the area for the facility ready to go. We have 200 days in a contract to have it up and running, which would make it April 21."

When the helibase is completed, the Forest Service will sign a 20-year lease and take over the facility going forward, using it as a rappel base and for other firefighting needs.

Coffelt added that the helibase will feature some rappel training towers.

"It will give them opportunities to bring in rappel crews from other parts of the country to all train in one location," he remarked.

To launch a project of this magnitude, the airport had to rely on help from multiple organizations. Grant funds were provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation's Connect Oregon program and the Federal Aviation Administration. Crook County and the City of Prineville provided matching funds. Coffelt added that the Forest Service "has been hugely invested in this in the past number of years," and Business Oregon has been helping out as well.

"To make it happen, it was more money than any one entity could shoulder," he said. "It became a work in progress trying to get all of the plates spinning at one time. And they fell numerous times throughout the project, but all of the plates are spinning now."

Crook County in particular has taken on a larger role in getting the project going. The airport had mostly operated under city management for the past nine years, but in the past year, the county has increased its financial support.

Coffelt and Barney both stressed that the new project will help create more jobs in the community. Not only will it bring new infrastructure like water, power and sewer to the north end of the airport, increasing the potential for business growth, it will enable the Forest Service to expand its firefighting operations and add more jobs.

The helibase will also provide the amount of space that the Ochoco National Forest now needs for firefighting efforts and free up airport space that has served as overflow.

"Over the years, they have grown," Coffelt said. "They started in a small temporary base with one helipad and now they contract up to three helicopters a year on the airport, which means they have to spread them out around the airport to make that work. Then, if there is a larger fire, we get even more firefighting equipment — typically helicopters — and it really starts to clog the rest of the airport."

Finally, response time to wildfires is expected to benefit as well. Coffelt points out that the addition of the helibase helps support and keep firefighting efforts and equipment in Crook County, rather than other distant communities.

For Barney, Coffelt and other local leaders involved in the helibase project, work on the facility is a long time coming and they are eager to see its completion and enjoy the benefits in the near future.

"It's a big deal for the airport," Coffelt said.

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