Saturday, May 03, 2014

Sanne Esque: Smoke pilot

Forest service pilot Sanne Esque checks the oil on a Cessna 182 before takeoff. 

SEBRING — There’s a certain magic to what Sanne Esque does. 

“It’s hard to describe. You’re circling around the fire, and the rangers are, like, so happy you’re there. They know you can see the whole fire, where the houses are, where the fences are, where the ditches are. And they know they’re not going to waste time driving down a road and finding a ditch and there’s no way in.”

Sanne Esque is a fixed-wing Florida Forest pilot, and her job is to spot fires over Highlands, Glades, Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

“I have two unpronounceable names. My first name comes from Denmark. It sounds like Anna, but with an ‘S.’ My last name (esQUE) comes from my husband, so I don’t know what it means.”

While on routine patrol Wednesday afternoon, Esque identified two wildfires. Remember all that lightning?

“Identifying them quickly, just after a storm, keeps fire activity minimal due to recent rain,” said Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist. “The pilot radioed dispatch, and firefighters from Florida Forest Service quickly responded.”

Where there’s fire, there’s usually smoke, so Esque — radio name Forestry Five-Niner — can usually see for 25 miles from her high-wing, four-seat Cessna 182.

“It’s a very efficient way to spot the beginnings of a smoldering wildfire,” Yunas said. “Fixed-wing pilots are an essential element on wildfire scenes. These airplanes ... scout out wildfires and then serve as eyes in the sky for firefighters on the ground.”

One of two female FFS pilots, she still remembers her first flight.

“Feb. 2, 1992. My ex talked me into it. He said, ‘We’re taking an introductory ride.’ I said, ‘No I’m not.’ So I did. We went up with an instructor, and we flew around Lake Okeechobee, and it was the most incredible thing.”

She immediately wanted to become a flight instructor, and for three years, that’s what she did. In her previous worklife, she and her ex-husband opened Pizza Heaven in Okeechobee. But after 14 years, she was ready for a change.

“And this job came open. The guy who had this job, he was transferring to Tallahassee, and he told me to apply. I thought about it and thought about it, and I finally realized, this is perfect for me. I like to be home every night, and it sounded really interesting. Only two people applied, and I think I got the job because I had just spent three years teaching people how to fly.”

Fire season in Florida runs year round, Yunas said, with the majority of fires occurring from December through July. Most winter fires are caused by humans. Spring and summer blazes are mostly sparked by lightning, and can burn large amounts of land.

FFS fights fires with air tankers and two types of helicopters, Yunas said. The Bell UH-1H is the larger of the two. The Huey suppresses fires by lowering a bucket into a canal, pond or river and then dropping up to 320 gallons over the fire.

“The water dropped from the helicopter does not typically extinguish the fire entirely,” Yunas said. “Instead, it cools the fire, reducing its intensity and the speed at which it spreads, allowing firefighters on the ground more time.”

The smaller Bell OH-58A helicopters are sometimes used to get an aerial view of a large wildfire, or as a platform to coordinate aircraft.

FFS contracts air tankers though the U.S. Forest Service. The smallest, similar to crop dusters, carries less than 800 gallons; jets tote thousands of gallons of water or retardant.

Highlands County averages 110 wildfires a year, Yunas said. “We just need two weeks without rainfall; the dead leaf litter loses moisture.”

Esque has a message for fellow pilots: “Other planes see the fire and they want to look around. Please don’t fly over them, because I could be there. I’m looking for them, but sometimes we get focused on what we’re doing, and it gets dangerous.”

If she catches a fire when it’s small, Esque said, “I can save the firefighters on the ground a lot of time; instead of it taking 15 hours, in one hour they can (trench) a line around a small fire.

“That’s just a very satisfying feeling, when you know it’s just about out. To me, that’s the most magical part. The fire’s out quicker because they have all that information. They don’t have to be there until three in the morning; they get to go home at a regular hour.”

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