Friday, March 25, 2016

Centre County wildfire sneaks in ahead of airplane

BLACK MOSHANNON   -- Every year, wildfire season in Centre and Clearfield counties starts with a defining event: the arrival of an airplane at Mid State Regional Airport that will drop water on a fire that has grown beyond what can be handled on the ground.

On Thursday, however, the season came a day early.

State Bureau of Forestry officials said a wildfire broke out at about 5:30 p.m. in the Unionville area near the 1000 block of Governors Road.

“We had heavy fuel,” said fire forester Ryan Ling.

When it comes to wildfires in Pennsylvania, “fuel” doesn’t mean gasoline or kerosene. It means leaves and grass and the other dried bits of last year’s plants that litter the ground, creating something for the fire to consume.

In Union Township, the blaze consumed that fuel across 16 acres as about 70 firefighters from Centre, Clearfield and Clinton counties battled it for hours.

Ling credited the partnership between the Bureau of Forestry fire professionals and the volunteer fire companies in keeping the situation under control.

“We couldn’t do this without them,” he said.

The wildfire season starts when the snow disappears and ends when the winter-dry vegetation starts to “green-up,” or become healthy and not kindling waiting to happen. In Pennsylvania, that means that March into April, maybe the beginning of May, is the danger zone, Ling said.

That is why on Friday, the annual meeting of firefighters and foresters was capped with the arrival of the first flying tanker.

A second is due to arrive sometime in April, according to Joe Miller, air tanker base manager.

But why fight a fire from a plane?

Miller said a firefighter on the ground can handle flames up to about 4 feet high. The plane can handle flames that get up to 80 feet.

“That’s when you need air support,” he said.

Airplanes participating in the wildfire process are nothing new in Pennsylvania. Longtime forestry pro Wayne Wynick is retired this year, but he still showed up at the annual training as a volunteer. He said one of the first water drops on a fire in the country was in 1960. It wasn’t just in Pennsylvania. It was in Woodland, Clearfield County, just about 20 miles or so from Mid State.

The 800-gallon capacity aircraft will be on hand at Mid State through May 15.

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