New Mexico’s Enhanced $15.9 Million Firefighting Arsenal: Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands Air Tanker Base Upgrades

  • Published
  • By Allen Winston
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Kirtland Air Force Base, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, and their partners celebrated the dedication of the $15.9 million upgraded USDA Forest Service Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands Air Tanker Base (ATB) today, marking a significant milestone in New Mexico’s firefighting capabilities. The new facilities will allow the base to accommodate Very Large Air Tankers (VLATs), which increase fire retardant capacities and decrease wildfire response times.

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for Military Construction, secured funding in 2022 for the upgrades to ATB. Construction, funded by the United States Air Force, took approximately two years to complete and became operational on April 29, 2024.

Air Tankers fighting wildfires out of the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands ATB previously had a capacity of 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. The new landing pad site is strong enough to handle the weight and size of VLATs capable of carrying over three times the previous capacity, coming in at 9,400 gallons of retardant each. Until this year, these large aircraft had to go to Roswell or Arizona to access a filling station with these capabilities, making the ATB expansion on Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, both necessary and strategic.

“Team Kirtland is happy to be able assist in this very vital mission”, said Col. Michael Power, 377th Air Base Wing and Installation Commander at Kirtland AFB. “With Kirtland’s excellent location in north central New Mexico, it makes it a perfect home to be able to reach most trouble spots in the state and the region and be able to help New Mexico’s neighbors when needed.”

The new facilities boast four fire-retardant tanks with a capacity to hold 25,000 gallons of fire retardant each, including one mixing tank, two holding tanks, and one loading tank. With 75,000 gallons of mixed fire retardant available at all times, the USDA Forest Service can respond even faster and reach farther. The Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands ATB is now one of two bases in the United States that can simultaneously fill two VLATs, expanding the ATB’s reach. This national asset covers Southwestern, Rocky Mountain, Intermountain and Southern Regions, as well as Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, and Utah. In addition to this expanded coverage, the ATB can now respond to fires outside of the normal fire season. The Forest Service staffs the ATB with full-time and seasonal employees and can have up to 30 individuals working at the ATB during fire response operations, including contractors and pilots.

As wildfires have become increasingly frequent and severe, firefighting efforts have had to adapt. Historically, peak fire season in New Mexico begins in early May and runs until monsoon season in June. However, the state is now experiencing high fire danger throughout the year, according to the New Mexico Forestry Division.

“The very apparent need for this upgraded air tanker base was first identified in 2018 and has increased ever since. In 2022, the base opened two weeks early due to extreme conditions and delivered a historic 1.9 million gallons of retardant and 376 fills” said Michiko Martin, Southwest Regional Forester.

Due to regional plant life, grasslands, and climate change, New Mexico and the southwest remain uniquely vulnerable to wildfires. According to research from the U.S. Forest Service, New Mexico’s populated areas face a 73% higher likelihood than other states of experiencing a wildfire, making Air Tankers and their partners, an invaluable asset.

The scars left by these types of catastrophic events serve as a reminder of the relentless power of wildfires and the critical importance of firefighting capabilities. The upgrades to the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands ATB are a proactive step towards better preparedness and response to future wildfire threats.

“None of this would be possible without the hard work and dedication of the pilots, crews, and interagency personnel who operate this base day in and day out during the very busy fire season,” said Martin.

The Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands ATB’s expanded capacity, strategic location, and collaborative partners represent a vital asset in the ongoing battle against wildfires. The Forest Service has a supportive, long-standing relationship with the Department of Defense and Kirtland AFB, and are thankful for their partnerships with Cutter (fuel provider), Phos-Chek (fire retardant provider) and Tanker 10 (VLAT provider). As leaders gather to commemorate the ATB completion, there is a sense of optimism that the upgrades will pave the way for safer, more effective firefighting efforts in the years to come.