Firefighting helicopter

One of Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ firefighting helicopters flies over a forest with its water bucket in an undated photo from the department. This summer DNR will have a presence at Camp Bonneville in anticipation of wildfire season.

Clark County will play host to some extra fire protection this summer as county council OK’d an agreement allowing for firefighting helicopter staging at Camp Bonneville.

The Clark County Council approved 3-0 during their May 21 an agreement allowing the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to set up a forward operating base at the west end of the camp. The move comes as regional fire officials predict a greater-than-average chance of significant fires in Southwest Washington through August.

The agreement begins June 1 and ends Sept. 30, according to the agreement document, and allows for use of some of the county-owned Camp Bonneville property for a “Helitak” crew, which will use the helicopter to fight fires.

According to a staff report, DNR requested adequate space for one helicopter, a fuel truck, seven crew members including a pilot and fuel truck driver. Given an emergency, the agreement allowed for potential accommodation for an additional aircraft and crew.

At the council meeting, Clark County Public Works Camp Bonneville Manager Jerry Barnett said DNR employees would have access limited to the front entrance, airstrip and front barracks at the camp. The department would utilize one barracks building at the former military training camp for crew quarters, a building previously used by the state Department of Ecology.

The only improvements to the site would be the installation of a temporary utility pole to power a portable shower trailer and placement of portable toilets, according to the agreement document.

Barnett said it was his understanding the selection of Camp Bonneville was based on a regular assessment of fire seasons done by the DNR to see where added response resources would have the most benefit.

“The forecast is bad and that’s a good spot for a forward operating base,” Barnett said.

A May 15 report from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center showed that although there would likely be cooler-than-average temperatures in Washington through the end of May, Southwest Washington would experience hotter-than-average temperatures from June through August. Precipitation totals for that timeframe were also expected to be less than average in the region.

Significant fire potential was above normal for Southwest Washington through the end of May, continuing on through August, according to the report. 

Council Chair Eileen Quiring said it was her understanding that alternatives for response to Southwest Washington fires could be as far out as Olympia.

“I think for our safety this is probably a very good use of the space,” Quiring said.

DNR firefighters won’t be staying rent-free, as part of the agreement has the department paying the county $400 monthly and would cover their own utility costs. Though the agreement was only from June through September there was the possibility of renewal of the agreement on mutual terms.

Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee said the airstrip had not been used for many years, recalling he heard one of the last people to fly into the camp on that strip was U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. During a meeting with members of the local media prior to the vote Henessee mentioned that some nearby residents had expressed concern over the effects having a helicopter staging area nearby would have on them.

“I understand their concerns but the council has to weigh also … the greater risk to everyone in the area due to these fires,” Henessee said. He mentioned the location in the camp was selected in part due to any potential impacts the temporary base would have on ongoing munitions cleanup at the property, something he said was “hopefully” in its final stages.

“It seems like we periodically find another 150mm cannon shell or something like that which causes all sorts of problems,” Henessee said. 

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