HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — In a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S Air Force, the Hill Airtanker Base has been supporting aerial wildland firefighting in the region since 1996.
“Northern Utah, part of central Utah, southwest Wyoming for fire retardant," said Lee Rackam, a forest aviation officer with the U.S. Forest Service Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. "We also support the nation if there’s other air tanker bases such as Pocatello, Cedar City, Battle Mountain. We’ll go help them also and reload airtankers out of here,”
Rackam oversees operations of the Hill Airtanker Base and a heli-base in Morgan County.
At Hill, the airtanker base reloads aircraft with fire retardant and refuels jets for their next flight. The base opened for the 2021 season on June 12 and has already reloaded 58,000 gallons of fire retardant. On average each season, the base reloads roughly 300,000 gallons of retardant.
“The airtankers drop the fire retardant in front of the fire. The fire retardant is not meant to put out the fire, but it’s meant to slow the intensity and slow the rate of spread for ground firefighters to get there to put it out,” said Rackam, who’s been working with firefighting aircraft for more than 30 years. “It’s very critical, and it’s a valuable tool for wildland fires that are large in size and high intensity.”
The airtanker base has the capability to work with Single Engine Airtankers (SEATS) as well as Large Airtankers (LATS). SEATS carry 900 gallons of fire retardant while LATS can carry 3,000 or 4,000 gallons depending on the model of the aircraft.
The base doesn’t have the capability to handle Very Large Airtankers (VLATS), which can carry 12,000 gallons, due to the size of the loading pits.
“Our turning radius in our pits are too small to use the very large airtanker, the DC-10, so the Air Force allows us on a busy fire season to set up a base across the tarmac if they have the room, etc.," Rackam said. "We’ve only done that once, [but] there’s a possibility we might have to do it again this year."