Former Air Force Base Aims to be Western Hub for Firefighting Aircraft

The remaining military aviation unit at the Former McClellan AFB, Calif., is home to Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento which operates four HC-130 Hercules fixed-wing aircraft with 189 personnel assigned to the unit. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The remaining military aviation unit at the Former McClellan AFB, Calif., is home to Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento which operates four HC-130 Hercules fixed-wing aircraft with 189 personnel assigned to the unit. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Sacramento's massive McClellan Park, a former Air Force base turned business park, is in the running to become the hub for aircraft fighting fires in the Western states.

Already home to a Cal Fire aviation management unit and a Coast Guard air station, the business park in North Highlands recently was chosen as temporary home base for a fleet of five or more U.S. Forest Service HC-130H aircraft. McClellan officials say they hope to leverage that status to win federal approval in the next few years to become the permanent home for as many as seven Hercules firefighting aircraft.

The first of the federal planes is now housed in a McClellan hangar. It used the former base to launch 96 "sorties" over 19 fires in the tinder-dry West during the summer fire season, including missions over the big Valley fire in Lake County. Another refurbished Forest Service aircraft is expected to arrive at McClellan this winter for the next fire season.

McClellan executives and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, called the three-year contract a coup for the area, bringing more than 100 fire-season jobs and 20 off-season personnel to the facility. They say they hope it also gives McClellan an inside track to be the Forest Service's permanent Western states' aircraft home base.

"We think we have a pretty good location for this," said Larry Kelley, president of McClellan Park LLC, the entity that runs the 3,000-acre business park.

Other states, however, also have expressed interest in landing the deal. Wyoming officials are pitching two airports there as candidates, according to The Associated Press. The Forest Service is looking for a home base for aircraft it is getting from the Coast Guard. The craft will be repainted and retrofitted so they can spray fire retardant.

Matsui said she has been pushing for McClellan for several years. "McClellan has the facilities and is the ideal location to accommodate the aircraft," she wrote to Forest Service officials, listing the former air base's assets.

Those assets include large hangars and a 10,600-foot runway, an existing Coast Guard Air Station, and a fire retardant distribution center and maintenance facility run by Cal Fire, according to Scott Owens, senior vice president of McClellan Business Park and McClellan Jet Services.

Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service said in an emailed statement that her agency has begun its search for a long-term base of operations for air firefighting to be located somewhere in the 11 western-most states. "The long-term facility will be the primary base for maintenance and training, and it will be the off-season home of the aircraft and crews," she said.

An invitation-only ribbon-cutting ceremony with federal officials to commemorate the three-year contract will take place at McClellan on Nov. 10.

McClellan shut down as a military base in 2000. It was re-purposed as a private business park that includes an airport owned by Sacramento County. The business park includes office, industrial, residential, aviation and recreational company tenants.

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