Oregon officials: Keep helicopter fire base

ENTERPRISE, Ore. — State and local officials are objecting to U.S. Forest Service plans to move a base used by firefighters who descend on ropes from helicopters into the woods of northeastern Oregon.

The Forest Service wants to consolidate the base with a similar one that moved two years ago to La Grande, on the west side of the Wallowa Mountains.

The Sled Springs Rappel Base is now at Enterprise, on the northeast side of the mountains.

State and local officials say it’ll take longer for crews from the Grande Ronde Valley on the west side to the rugged country in Oregon’s northeast corner, the La Grande Observer reported.

Firefighters who rappel from helicopters can be inserted into rugged country with greater precision than those who use parachutes.

Having bases for such firefighters dispersed in the region means getting to fires quickly, while they’re small, said Mike Shaw, Wallowa Unit forester for Oregon Department of Forestry.

“If we are unable to do this, and fires get larger, Northeast Oregon landowners will end up paying more money in suppression costs or lose more of their timber and grazing resources,” he said.

The move also will cost Wallowa County 19 jobs, with ripple effects such as lower school enrollment.

“Collectively it’s death by a thousand cuts,” said County Commissioner Mike Hayward.

The Forest Service has been considering the consolidation for years, in efforts to reduce costs and improve firefighting capability.

An agency document said it determined seven years ago there was a “saturation of hosted rappel programs in Northeast Oregon.”

The agency decided in March to consolidate the bases at the La Grande Airport. The Sled Springs move is scheduled for 2016.

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