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The long-awaited facility will enhance Forest Service wildfire suppression efforts

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY CHAD SCHMIDT
 - An aerial shot of the new heli-base at Prineville Airport, which features a 9,999 square-foot buiding and three heli-pads for wildfire suppression.

An aviation facility needed more than 15 years ago is finally completed and occupied at the Prineville Airport.

A long-awaited heli-base, primarily used to support regional wildfire suppression, was completed in April and is now leased by the U.S. Forest Service and utilized by Central Oregon Fire Management Services (COFMS) personnel.

"It is exciting to be here," said Chad Schmidt, a local COFMS air base manager.

Sixteen years ago, the Ochoco National Forest built a helicopter base on the Prineville Airport. The plan was to eventually build a permanent facility, but according to Airport Manager Kelly Coffelt, as the years went by, the project failed to materialize.

That all changed more recently as efforts to a project gained momentum. 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. The Forest Service has also been significantly invested in the project for the past few years and Business Oregon helped out as well.

The result was 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. Schmidt added that the facility features two medium-size helipads as well as another one that supports larger aircraft.

The total footprint of the facility covers about half of a nine-acre portion of land set aside for the helibase and its future growth.

Project leaders were given a notice to proceed last year on July 1, with a completion to be no later than April 21. Crook County Commissioner Brian Barney, who played a prominent role in moving the project forward, said they finished the facility just before the deadline.

"Every project has its ups and downs, but it came together quickly," he remarked.

The Forest Service signed a 20-year lease and firefighters moved equipment into the building and occupied it at the end of May. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the arrival of some equipment, like steel furniture and network technology supplies, but the facility is nevertheless ready to support fire suppression efforts.

The larger facility not only provides more room for equipment and aircraft, it offers more room for employees, strengthening the ability to provide more services. Schmidt said that by this fall, enough funding will be available to employ 26 people at the heli-base and contracted partners will provide as many as five other people at any given time.

"The improvements of the facility should open up some opportunities for us to host other events," he added, citing such examples as training events that are typically held in John Day or in Idaho or Montana.

"We look forward to being able to host those here," Schmidt remarked.

Barney added that the heli-base benefits the community.

"If there is a fire that springs up around here close, the manpower is here to take care of it," he said.

In addition to bolstering local wildfire suppression efforts, the new building benefits the airport. The project has brought new infrastructure like water, power and sewer to the north end of the airport, increasing the potential for business growth, and is expected to create more jobs in the community.

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


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