Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Chasing Fires

Flying For CAL FIRE Aviation

Circling a fire, sometimes for hours, presents you with an ever-changing scenario. On a going fire, the landscape is constantly in motion as the fire moves through and across it, and tries to form fingers, to spot, to grow. Tall trees can torch and the fire dances from treetop to treetop along flaming ridge lines. Smoke can appear and fire starts burning in surprising places, just when you think the fire is out. We monitor six radios at a time and are in contact with everyone involved, including the Incident Commander who's in charge on the ground. Terms like "light flashy fuels," "understory," "torching," "containment lines," "hose lay," "building line," "hand crew" and "helco" become part of our everyday vernacular.

The tankers build red lines of retardant to help stop the forward spread of a fire, but sometimes, the fire fingers out ahead of itself and escapes. We help the firefighters look for "spotting," when an ember or a part of the fire jumps over a river, creek or road and starts a new fire. This is especially true in windy conditions. With the right conditions, a little fire can become a big fire astonishingly fast.

Potential spread of a fire is affected by type of terrain, the type of fuel that's burning, and the ferocity of the wind. When the firefighters can't "hold" a fire any longer, it becomes big and threatens to burn everything around it. After a big fire has burned the landscape, the black interior is charred, an Armageddon of smokes. We fly over, under and into the smoke. When I land my OV-10's leading edges, props and windows are often covered with grey ash.

Some fires turn into helicopter shows, especially when the terrain is steep with canyons and hard for fixed-wing aircraft to make retardant drops. There's a wonderful symmetry of a daisy chain of six or seven helicopters calling "off the dip" and "off the drop" as they follow each other into the dip site and back to the drop site. Their bucket drops are precise and skillful, and sometimes you can see a rainbow dance off the spray and the fall of the water. Helicopters will generally end the aerial work at a fire, mopping up any last hot spots for the crew.

There's something a little Zen about circling a fire for several hours. It's good, honest work. Sometimes from my perch, I can see a fire blowing up on the top of a distant mountain, and I know that another air attack is flying on it. The job is interesting, too, because like flying a missing-man formation, a fire flyer is in a protective bubble above the heat and sweat and emotion on the ground, and you know there are emotions when you see someone's house or barn burn down. Fire can be a brutal element; it takes what it wants so it really is a battle or an attack to fight it. This year, I heard about burning cows running across the land on a massive fire on federal land not far from our Air Attack Base.

Fire flying is one of the last exciting VFR flying jobs around. As the season goes on, fire becomes central to your life. You start dreaming about fires. You're at the Air Attack base six days a week for eight to nine hours a day and sometimes longer when you're called in early or land after dark. It's rewarding, too. In California, when people see your CAL FIRE Aviation Support t-shirt, you get used to them coming up to you in grocery stores and thanking you for saving their house, farm or neighborhood. It's a good feeling to know people appreciate what you do.

But just the other day, I heard another side of this. My 86-year-old neighbor, who has a daughter living near where a big fire was burning, was almost in tears when he told me she had to evacuate and might lose her house. Along with the sense of pride and reward I have in my job comes a real responsibility. I told him not to worry. We were doing our best to put it out and that I was sure his daughter would be ok. The fire is now 95% contained.


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