The unsung heroes of wildfires

The unsung heroes of wildfires

The unsung heroes of wildfires

The hard work of the Battle Mountain Airport staff is essential to fighting wildfires throughout Lander County and northern Nevada. Airplane fuel and fire retardant crews work hard to keep planes in the air and to support Bureau of Land Management (BLM) fire crews.

The airport ground crew consists of a staff of six people who work tireless hours during fire season with shifts sometimes lasting longer than 16 hours. Refueling aircraft with gas and retardant often goes unrecognized in the process of extinguishing the flames but it provides the backbone to the whole process.

Battle Mountain Airport Manager Karrie Thomsen explained, “During fire season we have a lot of traffic coming through, trucks running and when the vehicles are empty we have to refuel them at the tank farm. Plus, we don’t have a full-time secretary writing tickets, so we have to do that, too. We have a desk full of tickets at the end of the day. All because we were busy refueling planes so they can get back on the fire.”

Thomsen mentioned the airport crew has a routine that they follow. The first plane in is the first to get refueled. She boasted, “Our fuelers are incredible, and I have an awesome team. That’s what it is: teamwork. Everybody has to be thinking all the time, because when you are fueling a plane, you have to know what plane is coming behind you to get fuel and who is next in the line.”

The airport works directly with the BLM fighting the fires in the local area and around northern Nevada. With only six employees running the airport, when fire season starts, the crew sometimes has to call for help from the Fallon airport to give the Battle Mountain airport crew a day off during a wildfire.

Thomsen mentioned, “Some of these wildfires last weeks and we are working long days with no days off. Those Fallon crews give us the opportunity to get a break and have a day off to rest.”

One issue the airport ran into this summer was that the new tank farm Lander County provided was too small for the amount of fuel they were required to order to keep their trucks running. Thomsen explained, “On a slow fire season, our tanks will be fine, but when it gets too busy, the tanks struggle to keep up.”

The new tanks hold 40,000 gallons of fuel. The old tanks, which are no longer in commission, held 100,000 gallons of total fuel. Thomsen continued, “The problem was, we would be ordering fuel and we were either running out of it or overfilling the tanks. We had no way to store the fuel, so we would have all this extra fuel and scrambled to find fuel storage. Often we had to send some back to Fallon or find someplace at the airport to store the fuel.”

The airport crew is now enjoying the slower winter months, when only a few private and corporate mine aircraft visit the small airport. This slow season allows the staff to work on lower-priority projects and minor repairs. The prep work has already begun for the next fire season and the airport crew plan for another successful year.