Specially equipped airplanes and helicopters are getting a workout above the rugged terrain being scorched by the Cave Creek Complex fire.Five airplanes and 15 helicopters were assisting the effort Friday. The number of aircraft has increased nearly daily.
“Theyre very useful. They are another tool in the wildland fire work. They can make or break some situations,” said Chris Papen, spokesman for incident commander Dan Oltrogges team on the northern flanks of the fire.
The aircraft serve different purposes during fire fights.
Airplanes such as the Lockheed P-2V can carry thousands of gallons of fire retardant at a time and primarily are used to create or reinforce fire lines in unburned terrain.
“The heavy air tankers come with different capabilities. We can drop our load all at once, or we can . . . stretch it out,” said Lew French, spokesman for incident commander Jeff Whitneys team on the southern flanks of the fire.
On most large wildfires, an air attack commander will direct air tankers from a separate airplane. Often the commander or personnel in another plane will lead air tankers into their target zones.
Pilots have to be careful to keep from dropping retardant on ground crews. The material sometimes comes out lumpy.
“It is dangerous. It will crush a truck, and you do not want to be in the way,” French said.
Helicopters carry hundreds or thousands of gallons of water or retardant and generally are used to extinguish hot spots. Among the helicopters thump-thumping over the Cave Creek fire are the distinctive, buglike CH-54 and S-64E Skycranes, plus a number of smaller choppers.
Crews on the ground can often direct helicopter pilots to very specific drop sites, French said.
“Its more of a pinpoint kind of thing,” he said.
Helicopters can be effective in instances with nearby water sources, such as lakes. Helicopter pilots dip hanging buckets to fill them, then empty their loads on fires.
In instances when no water sources are close, firefighters create filling stations called “dip tanks.” Crews construct huge basins and fill them with water from tanker trucks.
They also can be filled with fire retardant. The red, gluey material is made of a phosphate-based fertilizer. Color is added so pilots and firefighters can see where retardant has been laid.
Unlike water, which evaporates quickly, retardant stays on shrubs, trees and grass longer.
In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has been shifting to smaller airplanes, rather than larger aircraft. High temperatures, tight flying conditions and suddenly changing weights of aging tanker aircraft have raised questions about their safety.
In May 2004, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior terminated contracts for 33 large air tankers, citing concerns with public safety after two planes broke up in midair in 2002.
“These airplanes are put under great stress, so there was concern over their airworthiness,” French said. “So the number of heavy air tankers available has been greatly reduced from what it had been.”
On April 20, three pilots died when an P-3 Orion air tanker crashed in a remote area of Californias Lassen National Forest during a training flight. The plane was owned and operated by Aero Union of Chico, Calif.
Meanwhile, Evergreen International Aviation of McMinnville, Ore., has converted a giant Boeing 747 into a tanker plane, but it has yet to be given certification to fight fires.