Posted 6 months ago
By John Axtell
The South Dakota Division of Wildfire expects to have a pumping station up and running at the Chadron airport by the middle of next month for a small aerial tanker…an operation that officials hope will be moved under the jurisdiction of the state of Nebraska later in the year.
The SEAT…single-engine aerial tanker…planes are modified cropdusters that carry about 800 gallons of water, retardant, or fire gel. South Dakota received a federal grant to set up SEAT bases along its borders to serve it and its neighbors, and began negotiating for a base in Chadron last year.
That was a major reason Chadron was proposed as one of 2 Nebraska SEAT bases in State Senator Al Davis’s wildfire bill, but Chadron was later dropped in favor of Alliance. Davis says that’s because he was told South Dakota officials were afraid Chadron couldn’t meet the project timetable.
“It’s a 5-year grant that expires in September, so there was some urgency to get it completed. When I visited with people in South Dakota, they were concerned Chadron wasn’t going to be ready, which is how we ended up moving it to Alliance.”
While Chadron officials don’t know where the suggestion of problems or delays came from, Davis says the switch to a base in Alliance…which is also sharing in the South Dakota grant…means even better aerial coverage for the western half of the state.
“There will be one plane and the objective was to be able to move that plane around between locations so that if there was a fire in the Panhandle, it would be in Alliance and if there was a fire in the Niobrara Valley, it would be in Valentine.”
There will also be a mobile base to service the plane if fires were to break out elsewhere in western Nebraska, such as the North Platte area.
The SEAT planes carry far less water or retardant than the big tankers that have been the norm for the past several decades, but they have a much quicker turnaround, can operate from smaller airports, get in closer to rugged terrain, and have a greater impact than their larger brothers in the early hours of a fire.
Senator Davis says all that’s important because the states are finding that the federal government’s budget woes are making it more difficult or more expensive for them to get the level of federal firefighting assets of the past.
In addition to the SEAT bases, LB-634 includes state support for a forest fuels reduction program, sets up a marketing program for woody biomass from forest thinning, has funds to rehabilitate burned lands to protect existing infrastructure, and expands the Federal Excess Property Program.