Friday, July 05, 2013

Helicopter pilots' jobs a challenge in fire zone

YARNELL - One of the most visible elements of wildland firefighting is air support, and while the big air tankers work out of airports, helicopters can be based just about anywhere they can land.

At the Yarnell helibase, a large, flat field, helicopters stand by, awaiting calls to service. Thursday, four were in place: two firefighting helicopters from California and Montana; one multi-role aircraft from Minnesota that, so far, has been used for reconnaissance on this fire, and the Department of Public Safety's Ranger 52, standing by for emergency medical evacuations.

Dumping water on a fire is not easy, noted pilot Art Sanford. "Movement of the wind, going from a headwind to a tailwind when we have a heavy load," can be treacherous. "Helicopters are designed to fly into the wind... a strong wind can really complicate issues," he said.

"If the wind was 20 miles an hour but it gusts to 35, that would make it hard for a helicopter with a bucket," Mike Pelletier from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said.

A pilot since 1969, Sanford is from Minnesota and most recently worked a fire in Utah with his crew of firefighters. He said that, in the hot weather and high altitude of Arizona's mountains, carrying the heavy load of water in their "bass bucket" is a challenge. "You do things slower, you try to plan ahead more, and you try to plan your maneuvers so that you don't get to the point that, all of a sudden, you need to pull a lot of power - because you may not have it," he said.

"About 80 gallons would be a maximum water load in the heat of the day," Sanford added.

Sanford's crew can dump water, deliver cargo by net where there's no room to land, hauling people to the scene, or take the incident command staff up for a look at the fire, Pelletier said.

One aircrew that's happy not to be needed is the Ranger 52 crew. Their job is to airlift out injured firefighters, which they have not yet had to do.

The pilot and two medics are standing by, waiting for a call they hope will not come. If it does, Officer/Paramedic Darren Winters, the crew has experience in emergency extraction, from one-skid landings on rock faces to long-line rescues where there's no room to land at all.

"Things have been going okay for us on this fire," Winters said.


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