Sunday, March 19, 2017

The airplanes that protect the Panhandle



With elevated winds, high temperatures and little rain, it is peak fire season in the Texas Panhandle for at least the next few weeks.

And since it is the most dangerous stretch of fire season, the Texas A&M Forest Service is on round-the-clock standby, ready to attack fires from the sky whenever necessary, designating to this area four aircraft that have already played key roles in fighting wildfires near Amarillo, Tulia and Perryton during the last three weeks.

Three of the airplanes are single engine air tankers (SEATS) that can carry and drop between 600 and 800 gallons of fire retardant per mission, along with one aerial supervision platform (Air Attack) that scans the area before SEATs arrive in order to determine the best course of action for trying to halt the advancing flames.

Gary Bustamente, the Forest Service SEAT Manager who is currently stationed at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport with the aircraft, says determining where to station the planes around the huge state during fire season is like playing a game of chess.



“There’s no fire danger around Houston and San Antonio, so we don’t have resources there. They try to locate (the planes) where the fire danger is, which is basically the Panhandle right now,” Bustamente said. “So the resources are located up to here to try and respond to a fire when it starts.”

The aircraft and pilots are contracted through the federal government, with the SEAT planes coming from Plains and the Air Attack spotter coming from Kentucky.

So far the aircraft have been called upon to help fight four Texas Panhandle wildfires: the Dumas Complex Fire; the Tulia Fire; the Perryton Fire; and on Friday afternoon a grass fire in southeast Amarillo off Lakeside and Interstate 40.

Veteran relief pilots who have more than 15 years of experience in fighting fire from the air say the blazes this spring have been some of the worst they can recall.

“It’s probably about as bad as it gets as the fire spreads,” pilot Jim Watson said. “One fire was running six or seven miles per hour and the grass had 20 foot flame leaps, and that’s pretty extreme fire behavior. That’s attributed to all the fuel we had from previous rains and winters.”

Watson said the aircraft can travel at up to 175 miles per hour, making it so the planes can offer quick and accurate response to fires anywhere in the Texas Panhandle.

The aerial strategy for wildfires is to drop fire retardant rather than water. Scott Lang, a veteran pilot who has been fighting fires from the sky for 16 years, says instead of dropping water on the flames the goal 90 percent of the time is to drop retardant ahead of the flames to stop the fire’s spread, helping firefighters on the ground who are attacking the flames with water.

“We’ll arrive on scene and they’ll request what they need us to do for them on the ground, and that’s what we try to do,” Lang said. “Our main job is to help the boots on the ground, to help them get closer to the fire.”

Lang said the pilots are also called upon to provide protection for structures, as was the case in the Dumas Complex and Tulia fires.

During the Amarillo Complex fire, Lang said he dropped 10 payloads of retardant during the first day with about 20 minutes of turnaround time between each drop. Turnaround time can vary depending upon the distance between the reload airport and the spreading flames. For the Dumas Complex fire the turnaround time was short because it was just seven miles from their refilling post at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport.

“Several times we were doing structure protection, laying lines before houses so the fire will burn up to it (the retardant) and stop,” Lang said.

When an aircraft performs a drop it can fly as low as 60 feet over the flames but their goal, particularly because they are trying to stop the fire’s spread, is to stay out of the smoke and fire.

Despite being so close to the flames from within an airplane, Watson said the danger the aviators face is no worse than firefighters face on the fields.

“We have a drop height of 60 feet or above,” Watson said. “So we’re within 60 feet of the (fire) fuel and terrain, but the biggest danger is not any worse than the ground trucks running around.”

Approaching the fire the pilots have to take into account the wind, the size of the flames and the spread of the smoke in order to determine a clear path for them to make their run and drop, something they’re assisted with by the Air Attack plane and commander.

“We try to stay out of the smoke,” Lang said. “But now and then you do get caught in it. It’s not that dangerous for what we do, we have safety mechanisms in place.”

Their safety mechanisms along with the pilots’ coordinated teamwork helped them save a subdivision from being destroyed during the Tulia fire roughly three weeks ago, according to the Forest Service.

As for how long the planes will remain in Amarillo and around the Texas Panhandle, Lang says it’s all up to Mother Nature.

“It’ll have to be a significant weather event,” Lang said about what might cause them to move along to another area. “We’ll have to have some rain, because it will green up in the next two to three weeks, but if we don’t get rain, that’s not going to help much.”

When they do leave Amarillo, Lang said it’s likely head to the southwest region of Texas in the David Mountain area.

“That’s part of the scenario,” Bustamente said of their next stop. “Typically when it greens up here, the fire danger shifts down to the southwest.”

BREAKOUT INFO

4 planes in Amarillo, 3 single-engine airtankers, 1 aerial supervision platform

600-800 gallons of fire retardant in one single engine airtanker drop

4 fires called to in the Panhandle

175 mph top speed for single-engine airtankers

60 feet drop height for fire retardant

Original article can be found here:  http://amarillo.com

No comments: