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Firefighting air stations and planes now operational to help with rural Nebraska wildfires

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — New emergency stations to store flame retardant and water for a firefighting airplane are up and running, a state forestry official said Tuesday.

The state-contracted plane and flight crew arrived last week for a two-month stint during the summer wildfire season, said Don Westover, the Nebraska Forest Service's rural fire protection program leader.

The forest service recently hired a manager for the single-engine air tanker base in Chadron, which was dedicated in April but officially went into operation earlier this month. Two other bases are also in place in Valentine and Alliance, in addition to a mobile unit that can travel to different airports. The bases serve as storage facilities for water and flame retardant, allowing the plane to reload and circle back to a fire quickly.

The planes and bases were approved after massive wildfires in 2006 and 2012 that threatened lives and property. Nebraska has not seen any major wildfires so far this year.

"All these fires start out small," Westover said. "If you can keep them that way, the fires of the magnitude that we saw in 2006 and 2012 might not occur. The (plane) can't do that all by itself, but it should help save resources and lessen the threat to human life."

In 2012, the state relied on a single-engine plane based in Hot Springs, South Dakota to help fight grass- and woodland fires.

The Legislature passed a law last year that allowed the state to contract for the firefighting plane during the summer. Supporters argued that having the plane stationed in Nebraska will help shorten response times and keep the state from competing with others for resources.

The single-engine plane can carry 550 to 700 gallons of liquid or foam flame retardant, Westover said. Emergency crews use them to extinguish fires in hard-to-reach areas, such as canyons or thick forests, and to soak grass quickly to keep flames from advancing.

The airport stations are comprised of three tanks: one for water, one for concentrated flame retardant, and a third to mix them for use by the single-engine plane.

Gov. Dave Heineman signed another law in April to have Nebraska join the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact. The agreement with Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas lets member states share their firefighting resources and equipment in an emergency without going through the federal government.

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