BLM established Aerial Fire Fighting Base at Riverton Airport; Two tanker aircraft located here
(Riverton, Wyo.) – Riverton Regional Airport is now home to a Bureau of Land Management Small Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) Base with two AT-802 aircraft making near daily sorties. The aircraft were located here because of Riverton’s central location. Other SEAT bases are located at Rawlins, Casper, Greybull and Gillette, all within 50 to 75 nautical miles of each other. And that is by design.
“If we are called to a fire at Worland, for example,” said Base Manager Glenn Spargur, “we dispatch the Riverton aircraft and they can reload slurry at the Greybull base as many times as needed, before coming back here for the night.” He explained each pilot is limited to a maximum of 8 hours of flight time, and a maximum of 14 duty hours for any one day. The planes only fly between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Most of the base’s sorties have been to the Big Horn Basin, especially around Worland, where three 1,000 acre fires have occurred there already. Several sorities have been to Northeast Wyoming in Weston and Campbell Counties and south to the Rock Springs area. “Cheat grass is abundant around Worland this year, and it burns fast,” Spargur said.
“These are fast response aircraft for fires at the 6,000 foot level and below. Those can move very quickly,” said Aaron Thompson at the BLM Lander office. Thompson said the two aircraft have been stationed here since July 5th to respond to fires anywhere in the state. “We send them in when a small fire is reported to catch the grass or brush fire when it is small. That’s the best use of these aircraft. They are efficient and effective fire fighting tools.”
Originally from Cody, Spargur has served across the country with both Large Air Tankers (DC 10s) and the single engine type. Most recently, he served in Alaska and Florida. Lander Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Coyne, who is a BLM employee, is training to be a base manager and will staff the Riverton base on weekends.
“We are logistics coordinators,” Spargur said. “Our job is to support the aircraft, give the pilots briefings and specific sortie information and mix and load the slurry. We also provide porta-potties for the pilots plus sports drinks to keep them hydrated and, occasionally, if they haven’t eaten, meals.”
Jeff Erger, an AT-802 pilot from Phoenix, Arizona, has been flying the air tanker for some 14 years. He’s employed by a private company that contracts with the government to provide the fire fighting service. He was flying out of Colorado before coming to Riverton. “These are good airframes, they are built like NASCARs, they’re pretty strong. They get us there fast to keep the fire outbreaks small,” he said. The airspeed of the AT-802 is around 160 mph, both loaded and unloaded.
Erger was resting in the shade of his aircraft’s wing, laying on a lawn recliner while using his smart phone when County10.com arrived. “It’s fun while we are flying, but kind of boring when we’re just sitting around, like now,” he joked. Just like firefighters everywhere, he likes to keep his ship clean, so after missions he’ll wash and shine the aircraft.
The concentrated slurry mix comes in liquid form. It is mixed with a ratio of 5.5 parts water to one part concentrate. The finished product looks a lot like thick tomato juice. “It’s a poly phosphate fertilizer with gum thickeners, corrosion inhibitors and other proprietary ingredients,” Spagur said. The concentrate is mixed with water from a fire hydrant adjacent to the base site on the south side of the airport near the fuel farms.
“We respond to any jurisdiction when requested by an Incident Commander, BLM, Forest Service, State or Tribal Forestry or counties. Any agency,” he said.
On Saturday, Coyne said local fire departments will come to the Riverton base for training and to learn what resources are available.