Friday, March 30, 2012

Air tankers deliver help from on high

Kevin Merrill, the air tanker base manager at Rapid City Regional Airport, looks at a flight screen showing the location of planes flying to the Apple Fire near Custer on Thursday, March 29, 2012. 
(Kristina Barker/Journal staff) 

 Jim Davenport keeps a hose in place while helping fill up an airtanker with fire retardant at the Rapid City Airtanker Base at Rapid City Regional Airport on Thursday afternoon, March 29, 2012. The tanker over the Apple Fire near Custer. 
(Kristina Barker/Journal staff)

The nitty-gritty work of fighting a wildfire like the 515-acre Apple Fire near Custer is done by people on foot, carving firebreaks out of the wilderness.

But the drone of a Korean War-era airplane can be music to the ears of hand crews trying to contain a blaze.

Those workhorse planes can dump 2,000 gallons of fire retardant before returning to reload, invaluable support when the fire line can stretch for miles.

“We can buy them time to get in there and get their folks in position,” Kevin Merrill, manager of the U.S. Forest Service air tanker base at Rapid City Regional Airport, said Thursday. “We’re just there to support the firefighters on the ground.”

Normally, the air tanker base doesn’t open until June 1. But this year it started operations on March 17, spurred by unusually hot and dry weather that has sparked an early and severe wildfire season in the Black Hills.

For the first week and a half, firefighters received air support from single-engine tankers on loan from the state of South Dakota and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Those air tankers hold from 600 to 800 gallons of fire retardant.

On Wednesday night, the big guns arrived: two Lockheed P2V planes.

Those planes belong to contractors and were brought in from Colorado, where they had been fighting other wildfires.

All day Thursday, the two planes flew in constant rotation, making the 11-minute flight from the air tanker base to the Apple Fire south of Custer.

“We shoot for about 15-minutes turnaround time if the aircraft doesn’t need fuel,” Merrill said. Loading the fire retardant takes seven or eight minutes, with the rest of the time spent taxiing and waiting to take off.

With the Apple Fire, the P2Vs can make around 15 trips before needing to refuel. In addition to the fixed-wing aircraft, local fire crews also use Blackhawk helicopters from the South Dakota National Guard.

Carrying 660-gallon buckets, the helicopters fly back and forth to a reservoir or pond to refill with water.

“We’re here year-round to provide that local level of support,” said Chief Warrant Officer Christian Frank, a Blackhawk pilot-in-command for the National Guard. “They don’t have to bring us in from a long distance away like air tankers or other national-level fire assets.”

In rough terrain, these aerial resources can prove vital to containing a wildfire.

“If there is an active fire front that’s happening, and we don’t have resources in order to get out there, they can drop retardant in front of that fire,” said Chris Stover, an assistant fire manager for the Forest Service’s Mystic Ranger District. “Firefighters generally want to be behind the fire or next to the fire. We never want to be in front of the fire. So we can use that retardant to slow down the fire’s progress in order for us to be able to catch it up.”

On big wildfires, aerial support is almost always focused on containing the fire, not on directly attacking it. Retardant or water will be dropped in front of a fire to slow it, or be dropped along a road or other firebreak to help contain the wildfire behind that line.

Pilots of helicopters and air tankers have to be careful. The smoke, wind and rough terrain can pose dangers. Moreover, the water or fire retardant can pose a serious danger to anyone caught underneath.
“Retardant’s heavy, that’s for certain. It can hurt you,” said Stover.

One gallon of fire retardant weighs around 9 pounds. That means the 2,000 gallons inside a large air tanker can involve several tons of force coming down – especially when dealing with forest fires, where drops will be more concentrated to penetrate the forest canopy.

Grass fires involve a lighter drop, aimed at spraying a large area.

Aircraft often do dry runs over a site to be clear about their avenue of attack, and they stay in constant communication with fire crews on the ground to ensure everyone gets out of the way.

The Blackhawk helicopter pilots try to never carry a loaded bucket over streets or homes.

“That’s just a safety threshold we don’t want to cross,” said Frank.

The fire retardant isn’t toxic, but that doesn’t mean it is pleasant for people who get caught in the spray.
“It turns everything red, and it’s very sticky,” said Stover, who has been covered with it in the past. “It’s difficult to get off of your clothing. You definitely want to get it washed off of you as soon as possible.”

Coordinating the aerial attack can be extremely complicated, involving multiple local, state and federal agencies as well as private contractors.

“Just communicating across those interagency lines can be a challenge,” Frank said.

Merrill said that coordination is the hardest part of his job.

“It’s really complex,” he said. “Our job is to support the firefighter on the ground. We need to make sure we’re active and operating efficiently so we can get the product from the tanker base to support the people on the line.”

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