Crop dusters aim for bigger role in fighting Kansas wildfires

Crop dusters aim for bigger role in fightingKansas wildfires

10 February 2007

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USA — As rural firefighters throughout Kansas look ahead to wildfire season,John “Dusty” Dowd hopes they’ll include crop dusters in theircontingency plans.

Dowd, a crop duster himself and owner of Syracuse Flying Service Inc., hasbeen working for more than eight years to get fire departments to understand therole that agricultural aviation can play in dousing and suppressingout-of-control fires in open lands.

Now, Dowd and the Kansas Agricultural Aviation Association have formed theWildfire Aerial Suppression Program – WASP, for short – which held its firstcommittee meeting recently in Garden City.

Dowd sent informational packets a year ago to rural, county fire chiefs inall 105 counties, providing them with a list and map of crop dusters they couldcontact in case of a wildfire. But there’s still much to be done, he said, toeducate firefighters about the new program and to train pilots in dropping wateron fires.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Dowd said.

The program currently has 34 pilots – all but four of them in western Kansas- who are willing to fly in different areas of the state to aid firefighters.

“We don’t replace ground people,” Dowd said of the program. “That’snot the intent.”

Most of the pilots who attended the Garden City meeting have 500-gallonairplanes. Such capacity means a plane would need only about 12 seconds to douseand cool a fire with a path about 60 feet wide by a half-mile long, Dowd said.

Then, said Hamilton County Fire Chief Ed Baker, ground fire crews would comein to “mop up” the fire and take care of areas still smoldering. Bakerhas called on Dowd and other pilots in the past to help quell fires.

And if the upcoming spring and summer are anything like last year’s, morecounties might do so in 2007.

Sparked mostly be lightning in tinder-dry areas, wildfires struck Kansasgrasslands unusually early in 2006. A storm that hit Hamilton County in late Maysparked more than a dozen fires that blackened an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 acresof mostly idle farmland.

By mid-August, state officials had tallied dozens of major grass fires thatconsumed 82,000 acres and damaged or destroyed 52 structures.

Baker said his department’s decision to call in aerial fire suppressiondepends on the size and speed of the fire.

He recalled one fire that ground crews could not bring under control, evenwith mutual aid from neighboring counties.

So Baker called in Dowd, who brought a second pilot. The two planes helpeddouse the fire and saved a house and several haystacks.

“There’s no way we would’ve done it on our own,” Baker said

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