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Brainerd airtanker base on short list of DNR firefighting priorities for 2022 bonding bill

Gov. Tim Walz toured Brainerd airtanker base Oct. 28 to promote bonding bill spending to upgrade wildfire response. Hibbing and Brainerd facilities are part of proposal to go to the Legislature early next year.

After a drought and a hot spring and summer, with historic numbers for wildfires in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz said a bonding request to fund those who protect communities and state resources is needed in 2022.

To help accentuate the point, Gov. Tim Walz stopped at the Department of Natural Resources airtanker base in Brainerd Thursday, Oct. 28, amid several stops around the state. Walz toured the facility talking with DNR and airport officials beneath a light, steady and, for those who fight wildfires, welcome rain.

The 2022 bonding request is seeking $7.8 million for wildfire aviation infrastructure with $4.3 million going toward Hibbing Airtanker Base facilities and $3.5 million to the Brainerd Airtanker Base facilities.

Walz said his purpose at the airtanker base was being at the stage of writing the local jobs and projects bill, which is commonly called the bonding bill, where the state uses its capacity to borrow for projects, whether those include upkeep on higher education to roads and bridges and other infrastructure.

In Brainerd, the focus was on the state’s capacity to fight wildfires.

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“This is obviously a key issue this summer when we saw the worst wildfires in half a century — closing of the Boundary Waters for the first time in 48 years, the loss of houses, entire communities being evacuated at times because of how bad this was,” Walz said.

Support from other states helped as well as resources from places as far away as Australia arrived.

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“And part of it is this infrastructure at this facility in Brainerd at the Brainerd airport supports that mission and these facilities are severely outdated,” Walz said. “... So we are up here today to look at this, to hear from the local folks, to see it on the ground and then what I will do is go back and make sure that when we present that bonding bill in January to the Legislature it is going to be reflective of local requests, it is going to be reflective of local needs and that we will make the case.”

The spending was pulled out of the 2019 bonding bill. Walz said those in the fire service told officials then if the state had a bad fire season it would overburden the system. In some cases, Walz heard Thursday, there wasn’t the capacity to refill fire retardant.

“Those are things we need to do,” Walz said, adding he was grateful for the DNR fire section team and the partnership with the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.

Walz also stated upgrades to the airport, such as the infrastructure spending proposed, make an economic difference.

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Walz encouraged people to go online and look at the requests and project costs.

“The cost from 2019 to 2021 has gone up and we know at some point in time that this is not a working facility, especially if we’re going to see the impacts of some of the climate changes where, unfortunately I think, last summer may be more typical than we’d like it to be and we need to be ready to make sure we’re protecting life and property.”

Paul Lundgren, DNR Forestry wildfire section manager, said the focus on the request in the bonding bill is on Hibbing and the facility in Brainerd.


"This is obviously a key issue this summer when we saw the worst wildfires in half a century."

— Gov. Tim Walz


“These facilities go directly to supporting the operations that provide critical protection to citizens across the state of Minnesota and supporting our wildland firefighters on the ground,” Lundgren said, adding with the facilities, the aircraft and operations provided, response can be faster, safer and more effective.

In particular for the Brainerd facility, Lundgren said the airtanker base has been at the airport for a number of years. “This is where we are going to stay,” he said. “It is geographically in the right spot. And we just need to look at a long-term investment to maintain the operations, to prepare ourselves so we can continue to provide the operations we have going forward.”

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Gov. Tim Walz, left, tours the tanker base Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport with Darren Neuman, DNR wildfire aviation supervisor;, Sandie Youngblom, Brainerd Tanker Base manager and aviation dispatcher; and Paul Lundgren, DNR Forestry wildfire section manager. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Walz translated the state bonding request to a homeowner who needs a new roof or windows. Putting that investment off reduces the value of the home, makes it less livable and less safe and eventually the homeowner needs to do the project anyway.

Walz said the state’s bonding rate is as high as any state in the nation, which translates into lower interest rates.

“We are still at historically low interest rates and our state finances are in a position that these investments make sense,” Walz said. “For those who would say we don’t have the money, we shouldn’t spend it, actually makes it more expensive, reduces your ability, not to mention all of the benefits you are hearing about fire suppression, fire safety, saving homes.”

And in the Brainerd community, Walz said, additional benefits come in terms of jobs, construction and a continuous input to the community as firefighters stay at area hotels and spend money in restaurants and in the area. About 30-40 firefighters are at the Brainerd facility during the fire season.

“This is, as I said, a great airport facility,” Walz said, noting it is critical for business and tourism. “And to co-locate this just makes sense,” he added.

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Gov. Tim Walz met with Department of Natural Resources officials Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at the Brainerd Airtanker Base. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

As for bipartisan support for the projects, Walz said he now feels if he says it’s Thursday, he may have a fight on his hands. But for these projects and in listening to the local requests, Walz said he is optimistic and thinks there will be strong support from local legislators who understand the importance of it, especially after this fire season.

“I think this is one you will see a very nonpartisan push and you get a lot of buy-in from the local counties and those mayors and those citizens who saw the work that needed to be done,” Walz said. “We made the case for this last time. We’ll do all we can to make sure it stays in. It’s a reasonable request.”

Lundgren said the size and variety of terrain in the state means the best tools are a combination of resources — track vehicles, trucks, aviation and ground troops.

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Paul Lundgren, DNR Forestry wildfire section manager, talks with Gov. Tim Walz at the Brainerd Airtanker Base at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

“These facilities support those ground firefighters on the ground because they put the fire out, but we’ve got to give them a chance to have a chance and cool things off,” Lundgren said. Working in combination with those tools and ground firefighters, Lundgren said less time is spent on the ground and in any one place, which lowers risk, cost and damages.

Walz noted the state’s fire services and collaborative agencies work as a well-oiled machine.

“As long as the resources are there, they know what to do — and that was really apparent this summer,” Walz said. “... We know exactly what needs to be done, the question is do we have the resources to do it.”

Lundgren said if the funding goes through, the tarmac project in Hibbing is a priority and the hope is to be operational there next year. If the dollars come through, the DNR is prepared to move as quickly as possible to get the work done.

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Gov. Tim Walz met with Department of Natural Resources officials Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at the Brainerd Airtanker Base. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

About the proposed projects

At Brainerd — the $3.5 million would go to replace existing facilities with workspaces to accommodate up to 30 people for briefing, dispatch, crew readiness, airtanker loading, storage, and pilot rest areas. Currently, the airtanker base uses two mobile home units dating back to Hurricane Katrina and multiple sheds and ad-hoc storage buildings the DNR reported were reaching the end of their useful life.

At Hibbing — $1.8 million to replace existing aircraft staging and access areas. The DNR reports the ramp is decaying, compromising safety and almost inoperable with reduced weight capacity. In addition, $2.5 million would replace an existing modular home unit and mobile home with a new facility that could have up to 30 people for operations from briefings, dispatch, and to pilot rest areas.

By the numbers

  • 25-year average for Minnesota wildfires 1996-2021: 1,668 fires and 38,000 acres burned.

  • 2021: 2,005 wildfires for 66,596 acres burned; 832 aircraft requested for 274 fires March-September.

  • Typically, Minnesota has an intense fire season in April and May before grass begins to green-up. “After green-up, occurrence may taper off, but some of the biggest fires have been summer and autumn events. Wildfires are possible at any time during snow-free seasons,” the DNR reports in information on wildfire air operations.

Source: Minnesota DNR

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.

Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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