Community members and airport stakeholders gathered for an impromptu barbecue to talk about the importance of Bowers Field on Saturday.
The event, hosted by Hospice Friends was attended by representatives from city, county and state government, Central Washington University, first responders and members of the medical and aviation community.
Hospice Friends Executive Director Ken Grannan said the barbecue was planned to get the community talking about a fly-in at Bowers scheduled to happen in September 2020. The goal of next year’s event is to promote dialogue between airport stakeholders and the community. Grannan said the airport is extremely important for his organization due to the fixed-wing Life Flight services that operate out of the field.
“With the changes to the airport, the runway being closed in 2017 and other changes happening, we felt now was the time to really bring awareness, so we don’t lose fixed-wing air ambulance service,” he said. “With the winds and everything we have here, we can’t rely on helicopter service. We need to have that fixed-wing air ambulance service.”
As Hospice Friends has been organizing a car show for the last 20 years, Grannan said the idea of a fly-in seemed like a logical progression.
“It’s a little different,” he said. “Once we dug in, we realized there were so many different organizations that operate out of the airport. We also found there was a lot of disconnect between a lot of these organizations.”
With uncertainty surrounding the use of the airport by Central Washington University and the Department of Natural Resources, along with the issues surround economic development on the property, Grannan said it was time to create a draw for the community to talk about these issues.
“Unless you’re a pilot or involved with firefighting or search and rescue, there’s really no reason for anybody to come out here,” he said. “That’s really unique. I haven’t been to an airport in a city as large as Ellensburg that doesn’t have a café or something for the community.”
As the fly-in gains traction leading to next September, Grannan said it is his hope that the event brings the airport stakeholders and residents together to begin to develop a plan that ensures the long-term success of Bowers Field.
“It’s about engaging the community,” he said. “With the disconnect with all the different organizations, we wanted to bring everybody together at one venue to kind of start the conversation and then proceed into that fly-in next year.”
Rep. Tom Dent (13th Legislative District) spoke of the importance of the airport to the local economy. Dent, who’s career is rooted in aviation said he has seen a decline in the economic strength of regional airports during the time he has worked on raising funds for them. He talked about a recent situation where he lobbied to divert 1 percent of the gasoline tax to airport revitalization, but that he couldn’t raise the votes necessary to pass it. He said he feels that this comes from a disconnect between lawmakers and the aviation community.
“We need to tell aviation’s story,” he said. “That story starts right here with us. This airport, any airport is the gateway to the community it’s in. Without a viable airport, you won’t see a lot of growth, a lot of economic development.”
Other guest speakers recounted their memories of the airport and the applications that it serves to their individual organizations. Along with economic value to the community, public safety benefits provided by the airport took priority during the speeches. Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue Chief John Sinclair talked about a recent accident on Interstate 90 that required an airlift to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He talked about how multiple teams from Wenatchee and Yakima worked together to provide an aircraft and crew to evacuate the accident victim.
“That’s an illustration of how vital this particular airfield is to Central Washington,” he said. “I realize that nobody in this room thinks about themselves being in an accident. God forbid that you are but having that resource available to the community is strategic. It is vitally important that we maintain this airport.”
Although this year’s wildfire season spared much of the region, Sinclair said the fires will most likely come back with a vengeance sometime in the next few years. He pointed to years past that had a large number of type-I fire incidents, the Taylor Bridge Fire being the most prominent example. In recent years, he said fire departments have been collaborating at a higher level with the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
“We took an approach of all-hands, all-lands, and as quickly as anybody gets a fire, we all go,” he said. “That includes the air assets. The single-engine tankers, the fire bosses that you see and the helicopters. I know of several fires I was in command of that we knocked out in four or five hours that could have become multiple-day project fires, but for the early application of helicopters.”
Using the success over the least few fire seasons as a template, Sinclair said the ability of fire teams to respond to incidents and keep them from growing is strained when equipment is located at longer distances from the fire, such as if equipment has to be brought in from Wenatchee or Yakima.
“The airport is an economic force multiplier for this community,” he said. “We need to make sure that we put all the efforts in to make sure it is still viable.”