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County says trees near Troutdale Airport will be cut in emergency

Cottonwoods will be removed in needed

TROUTDALE - Multnomah County officials have determined that the trees near the Troutdale Airport can be cut down swiftly if the U.S. Forest Service feels there is an emergency need to do so.

Port of Portland officials estimate there are somewhere between 250 and 300 cottonwood trees obstructing the flight path to the airport, which has been used in the past as a critical base for air tankers battling forest fires. Officials say 'many hundreds more' are within an estimated 10 feet of penetrating the airspace.

Because of local, state and federal land-use and environmental regulations, the proposed removal of the trees has been delayed for months. Forest Service officials and others are worried that as the Northwest's peak forest-fire season arrives, the air tankers must be diverted to airports farther away.

However, county officials decided Tuesday, July 25, that they could allow rapid removal of the trees if a major fire erupts and the Troutdale Airport, which is owned by the Port of Portland, is needed.

'Our land-use lawyers have determined that this can be a simple process,' says Rob Fussell, chief of staff to County Chairwoman Diane Linn. 'If there is an emergency, the Forest Service can call the Port and say, 'Cut the trees down, we need to land our planes.' '

Chainsaw-wielding work crews could take the trees down in two to three days, Fussell says. Normally, he adds, it takes time anyway for the airport to gear up for firefighting operations and to bring in fire retardant and special equipment.

'It's not typical that they wouldn't have warning. They have to be ready for reloading at Troutdale,' Fussell says.

Although the U.S. Forest Service keeps some equipment on hand at the Troutdale airport, no large tankers are stationed there.

On average, the airport is only used as a base for refilling these tankers with fire retardant once a year. The issue is not knowing when an emergency might strike, said Tom Knappenberger, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service's Portland office.

Helicopters and lighter planes can still access the area, Knappenberger said, but the larger, heavier air tankers need a longer runway to take off and land.

Although it is possible to approach the runway from the west to avoid the trees, it is far more difficult to do so, and it is dependent on wind conditions, said Kama Simons, Port of Portland spokeswoman.

Because of this, the Troutdale Airport is closed to all large air tankers until notice is given otherwise.

In the meantime, the U.S. Forest service will have to redirect its tankers to Redmond, where they are based, or to Moses Lake, Wash., for refills, Knappenberger said. In the case of a large gorge fire, the additional response time could be critical.

The Federal Aviation Administration first noted that the trees' height could become a problem in 2002, Knappenberger said.

Once they get the go ahead from Multnomah County, Port officials plan to have as many as 1,000 trees either removed or capped.

Although no final decisions have been made, preliminary plans call for the planting of smaller trees, such as willows or dogwoods, or native scrub shrubs in the area.