Wednesday, September 18, 2013

SEATs Provide Quick Response To Wildfires

When smoke is spotted, Vicki Baker gets a call.

As manager of the Single Engine Air Tanker base at the Lake County Airport, Baker manages up to three aircraft during the fire season that play a vital role in the initial attack of wildfires.

Single Engine Air Tankers, known throughout the firefighting world as SEATs, are small fixed-wing aircraft that can carry up to 800 gallons of fire retardant.

“The key is initial attack here, that’s what we’re good at. Seconds count,” Baker said.

Baker alerts the pilots to prepare their aircraft and grabs Andrew O’Brien, an Aero Tech employee who helps load fire retardant and maintain aircraft.

On O’Brien’s cue, Baker sends concentrated liquid fire retardant from a storage tank to a mixing tank. She chases that with five times the amount of water for the mix. O’Brien stirs it all together while the aircraft taxi to “the pit,” a small loading area just off the runway.

O’Brien shuffles to underneath the running aircraft after it pulls up, securing a three-inch hose to the underbelly. About 750 gallons is shot into the plane’s storage tank before O’Brien clears the way and the SEAT takes flight.

The pilot, sometimes Jim Maxwell, flies to the dispatch location and a two-door gate drops a scarlet-red line of fire retardant meant to slow a wildfire spread until ground crews can arrive.

“Jim can come into the pit, and I write down his time when he stops, and we fill him up and by the time he taxis out to take off is six minutes,” Baker said.

Working together

The base was established in 1998. It’s part of the Southern Central Oregon Fire Management Partnership, a collection of federal, state and local firefighting agencies that work together to prevent and attack wildfires in Klamath and Lake counties and Northern Nevada.

SCOFMP is part of the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, Idaho. At the beginning of the season, the NIFC will contract with Aero Tech to assign helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and ground support to bases across the country.

Baker maintains up to three SEATs during the fire season. A helicopter also is based at the airport. A pilot and eight firefighters can be dispatched to drop water, land and build fire lines or transport cargo.

Because both aircraft are small and quick, they are used more often in initial attack situations than larger aircraft. This is true especially in the urban interface, where man-made structures mingle and meet the forest topography. SEATs build lines that can save a building from a wildfire.

“The whole idea behind SEAT is to catch them quick and keep them small,” Maxwell said.

And that’s something SCOFMP has been able to do fairly well. Most of the fires handled by the agency have been kept to less than 10 acres, even while lightning was igniting several fires at once.

Despite all signs pointing to this year’s fire season being one of the driest on record, the SEAT team has been able to play a major role in quenching thirsty fires.

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