Sunday, August 7, 2016

Smokejumpers, planes attack remote wildfires

Smokejumper Ian Cruess, who is stationed at the Pocatello Regional Airport, puts on a harness that’s part of the gear he uses during his jumps. Cruess packs as much as 100 pounds during jumps into inaccessible areas as an airborne firefighter to help contain wildfires. The plane in the background is a Twin Otter that is used to deliver the smokejumpers.

Fighting wildfires requires skilled crews, coordination and lot of money. On remote fires, smokejumpers are the first people in the fight and air tankers provide support.

Last year, wildfire management and wildfire suppression in the U.S. cost a whopping $2.1 billion, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Fire agencies utilize a wide range of specialized fire crews, aircraft and technology to minimize danger to property and people while allowing nature run its course.

Ian Cruess is one of a dozen smokejumpers currently stationed at the Air Tanker Base at the Pocatello Regional Airport.

The crew traveled to Pocatello from the McCall/Boise base last week and is waiting to be called out on the next complex fire.

Smokejumpers parachute into wildland fires when engines and trucks can’t get there.

Cruess, who hails from South Lake Tahoe, California, said the specialized crews land with their jump gear. Then additional supplies and tools can be dropped in via para-cargo.

“In a lot of cases, we’ll be the first ones on the ground,” Cruess said.

In his 100-pound pack, Cruess carries a radio and enough food and water for two 16-hour shifts, hand saws, a tent, cold and wet weather gear, extra clothes and snacks.

Smokejumpers also wear a reserve chute and carry a tape line to let themselves down if they get hung up in a tree.

Fortunately, Cruess said he’s never had to use the reserve chute.

Cruess has been a wildland firefighter for nine seasons, but this is his first fire season with the smokejumpers. His crew came to Idaho from Grand Junction, Colorado.

To qualify for the physically demanding, specialized fire crew, smokejumpers go through a six-week training course.

“It is mentally and physically exhausting,” Cruess said. “But it made sense for me. I’d been fighting fire for seven years and always wanted to fly.”

Smokejumpers are required to do seven pull-ups, 45 push-ups and 55 sit-ups in a short amount of time.

Eight members of the elite crew board a Twin Otter, a turbo-prop aircraft, to get to the fire’s location where they jump into the blaze.

Once on the ground, smokejumpers make contact with fire dispatch. The crew sets up a staging area and then assesses the fire to determine its size, potential fuels and how likely the fire is to spread.

Cruess said smokejumpers are also utilized for medical emergencies not related to wildfire such as an injured hiker stranded in remote location, and smokejumpers are often the first line of defense when infrastructure and homes are being threatened by wildfire.

“We can actually fill a lot of different roles,” Cruess said.

Those roles include mapping the fire using GPS technology and calling in air support.

Smokejumpers can be called to a wildfire anywhere in the United States.

“We are a national resource,” Cruess said.

The crews work for 14 to 21 days and then get two days off.

Cruess is 28 years old, and he’s never been injured on the job.

“I’ve had some really good leadership. I’ve never been hurt, and I’ve never had to run,” Cruess said.

Ground crews battle wildfires using shovels, chainsaws and pick axes while aircraft dump fire retardant and water to slow the fire down and help contain it.

Aircraft used for firefighting rage from a converted DC-10 capable of carrying 12,000 pounds of fire retardant to single-engine air tankers that carry only about 3,000 gallons of retardant, but have the ability to drop below 150 feet to deliver their loads.

The fire retardant is basically fertilizer dyed red so it is easily visible by air and from the ground.

Shawn Dugan, of Bend, Oregon, flies the DC-10 currently stationed at the Pocatello Regional Airport. It’s his fourth year fighting fires, but his first flying the big plane.

The plane is one of 10 tankers based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Dugan, a former airline pilot, said he flies at an altitude of about 250 feet to drop his load of retardant and it’s all accomplished by line of sight.

There are three people on the plane and three sets of eyes watching the drop while also gauging potential hazards like trees, rocks and power lines.

“It costs a lot of money, and we want to make sure that the load goes where it’s supposed to,” Dugan said.

A lead plane might flight ahead and blow a line of smoke where they want the retardant dumped, and the DC-10 can make multiple drops.

Dugan said his father was a captain for Cal Fire, and he learned the business from the right-hand seat.

The big DC-10 can only make the drops during daylight hours, and smoky conditions and poor visibility can ground the planes.

When fire season ends in the U.S., Dugan flies on wildfires in Australia.

“A lot of mornings, I can’t believe that someone is going to pay me to do this,” Dugan said.

But Dugan said his role is one of many when it comes to managing wildfire.

Pilots Mike Conlee and Jim Maxwell are also flying out of the Air Tanker Base in Pocatello.

Conlee, who is from Oklahoma, said one-pilot aircraft can work in tighter areas.

The planes fly as low as 100 feet when they drop the retardant.

Maxwell is from Lewiston, and he said if you’re scared, then you’re doing something wrong.

He said his job is to support firefighters.

“Retardant doesn’t put out fires,” Dugan said. “We provide support for the ground forces — those are the guys who contain the fire.”

The two pilots have a combined 33 years of fire management and suppression experience between them. And Maxwell said one of the biggest advantages of the small tankers is that they drop their load and return quickly to reload.

However, Conlee said severe weather and wind is a hazard for the smaller aircraft.

“We can’t fly above the storms,” Conlee said.

Occasionally, the small planes are used to provide surveillance.

The pilots don’t load their planes until they’re called to a fire.

Maxwell said during his tenure, he’s seen better fire management policies put in place.

“There are less acres burned because they get after it as fast as they can,” Maxwell said.

The small tankers burn about 300 gallons of fuel every four hours.

Gerald Martinez of Michigan is a mechanic on the DC-10 crew.

He said that because the planes make quick turn-around and make multiple landings, there is significant wear and tear on the plane’s landing gear, and he said the plane cannot land if it hasn’t dropped its load

Martinez said it costs about $30,000 each day to have the aircraft on standby.

The U.S. Department of the Interior agencies charged with wildfire management include the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the Great Basin area, which includes western Wyoming and eastern and southeastern Idaho, there are currently three large, non-contained fires, including the Pioneer Fire burning 8 miles north of Idaho City. Burning in heavy timber, that fire has consumed more than 51,000 acres

The Broad Mouth Fire in the Bear River area 15 miles northwest of Tremonton, Utah, has burned about 21,000 of sage grouse habitat, and Saturday the fire was threatening structures.

The Cliff Creek Fire burning in the Bridger Teton National Forest about 15 miles east of Hoback, Wyoming, has burned more than 31,000 acres.

Lynn Ballard with the Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center said that during the last three years, there has been more wildfire activity, but fewer acres have burned.

Ballard said that crews got a break Friday with no new smoke reports.

Crews were also successful containing the Rocky Peak Fire. This fire is located approximately 10 miles north of Preston and was contained at 950-acres. The cause of that fire is still under investigation.

No estimation of control has been given, and the cause of that fire is still under investigation.

There has been little change in two fires being managed in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.

The Lanes Creek Fire, located 9 air miles west of Freedom, Wyoming, is being managed to meet multiple objectives, including allowing fire to play its natural role in the ecosystem by removing dense conifers and encouraging aspen regeneration.

A web camera allows fire personnel to monitor the fire constantly while firefighters on the ground have completed pre-treatments to minimize the fire’s potential impact to state and private lands. The fire has shown little activity since the last mapped perimeter of 116 acres, and an Emergency Closure Order is in effect, closing the Lau Creek Trail from the Pine Bar Campground to the confluence of Brush Creek.

The Big Elk Fire is holding at two acres burned.

Humans cause almost 62,000 fires each year, and most are started in southern and eastern states.

There are currently, 37 large fires that have burned more than 618,000 acres in 14 U.S. states. Nine new large fires were reported Friday in the Southwest, Great Basin and Northern Rockies areas.

Canada deployed a Convair 580 air tanker group to support wildland fire operations in Montana and two military C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems are deployed to Boise to support fire suppression throughout the Great Basin.


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