Cheney Free Press -

By SHANNEN TALBOT
Staff Reporter 

Housing is biggest issue at Fairchild Air Force Base

New commander addresses West Plains Chamber of Commerce on base concerns, water issues and future

 

November 22, 2018

The new commander of Fairchild Air Force Base addressed West Plains Chamber of Commerce members at their monthly breakfast on Nov. 14, telling them to anticipate even more new growth to the region as the base expands its operations and prepares to host an event that could bring up to 3,000 people to the area for a month next fall.

Col. Derek Salmi has been deployed all over the world and flown combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He took command of the base in June following last year’s announcement that the base will receive 12 primary KC-135 tankers plus three additional backup tankers.

Due to this expansion, the base will soon be home to 400 new personnel and about 600 dependents, flooding the area with an additional 1,000 people that will need housing and other essential services.

In his official introduction to the local business community, Salmi said he will be working to address those challenges, particularly since “There’s a lot of growth, but there’s not a lot of houses.”

Fairchild is the largest employer on the West Plains, and has recently become the largest air refueling wing in the world. About 60 percent of Fairchild employees live off-base.

This made the subject of housing a hot topic at the meeting, as attendees asked whether the Air Force would be providing any homes or relying on local construction and infrastructure.

“The Air Force model is to rely on the local community to help with housing,” Salmi said. “The Air Force has no plans to add housing on-base.”

The base regularly conducts small focus groups of airmen to analyze what their needs and priorities are, Salmi said. The number one issue concerning airmen was housing, with 27 percent citing it as their biggest focus.

The base expansion won’t be fully underway until 2020, with new personnel beginning to arrive next fall.

About that same time, the base will be hosting the Mobility Guardian 2019, the largest Air Mobility Command exercise in history. More than 3,000 military personnel from 25 countries will descend upon the West Plains for about three weeks in September, most of whom will be staying in local hotels.

The colonel also addressed a serious point of contention between the local community and the Air Force Base — last year’s contamination incident, when the water supply surrounding the base was polluted with chemicals found in firefighting foam.

Though the chemicals are believed to have seeped into groundwater from a fire training site on the eastern edge of the base, officials have maintained the position that it cannot know the extent to which past base activities contributed to the contamination.

“One of my primary goals is to manage the transition on our most important issues,” Salmi said, speaking of the water concern. “Our role is to be as transparent as possible.”

The Air Force has tested 368 local wells, 86 of which were found to have a contaminate levels above the EPA’s official limit of 70 parts per trillion. Treatment methods have been installed at 58 of those locations so far, and the Air Force is providing bottled water to all households affected, Salmi said.

Salmi said the Air Force has also invested in a seasonal treatment system that was recently winterized and is working with the city of Airway Heights to reach a long-term solution, with a system that would address the issue in the design phase. He also noted that the base legal office is available for community members who need help with the claims process.

Members at the breakfast were also treated to a brief summary of activities base personnel have been involved in over the course of the summer, including earning 60 different individual and team awards at a Unit Effectiveness Inspection in June and offering summer wildfire support.

A tanker from Fairchild also launched in August to assist F-15’s from Oregon when an Alaska Airlines plane was stolen in Seattle and crashed by a Sea-Tac airport employee.

Salmi thanked members for welcoming him and for being supportive of the base now and in the future.

“I’ve been trying to get here my entire career,” he said. “Veterans here in this community feel appreciated and valued.”

Shannen Talbot can be reached at shannen@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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