By Michael Howell
The Stevensville Airport has been buzzing with activity since the fire season burst into full bloom this summer. A covey of helicopters, including at one time four Chinooks and a Black Hawk, have been using the airport as a base for attacking fires in both the Bitterroot, Sapphire and Swan mountain ranges.
A land use agreement between the Town of Stevensville, the airport and the U.S. Forest Service allowing the use was signed earlier this summer.
Airport manager Craig Thomas said the Forest Service would pay for the use of the place and some of that money would go to the airport but the majority would go to the Stevensville Fire Department. He said some of the funds would also go to the Florence, Pinesdale and Corvallis Fire Departments on a rotating basis to address some of their needs.
Thomas said that the pilots have told him that they really enjoy the wide open spaces provided at the airport and that things were going very smoothly. He said it was an incredible sight the previous evening, “with a big red sun going down and four Chinooks and a Black Hawk coming in to roost.”
Thomas said he was really pleased with the amount of cooperation shown by everyone involved, including the Stevensville Fire Department, the Town Council and Mayor and the Airport.
“I haven’t seen this type of positive cooperation in a long time,” said Thomas.
One morning there were at least 10 helicopters flying out of the base, all leaving at about the same time to get to several different fires. According to Helitack base manager Albert Newman, the helicopters come from all over the place to fight these fires and other fires across the country. He said there was no guarantee that any of the helicopters would remain from day to day as priorities on the grand scale can change daily.
How does an airport without a control tower handle all this hectic helicopter traffic? You bring one in, of course. In this case it’s a Mobile Control Tower owned by Dale Morrow. It’s a little larger than a good sized RV and also sports a lot more antennae than your ordinary abode. Inside, teams of experts sitting at computer screens and radios orchestrate the buzzing activity around the airfield.
The mobile unit is designed to be self-sustaining. It is pulled by a tractor trailer truck that also carries a giant generator that can power all the antennae, computers, lights and compressors that might be needed. Fires are just one type of catastrophe that this unit attends. According to Morrow, he spent quite a while in the New Orleans area after Katrina.