USA — Flight operations over the Monument Fire are extremely difficult, said the man who manages air assets for the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.
Its a very complex air show with lots of moving parts involving fixed wing and rotor wing aircraft, Dennis Morton said.
While the number of aircraft flying in a fairly constrained space is hard enough, the difficulty increases when mountainous terrain, winds, temperature, controlled airspace and other factors are part of the decision mix, he said Friday.
It is not just a matter of having aircraft take off, fly over the fire and drop either retardant or water, because there are layers of aircraft in the area which have to be managed, Morton said.
What he is saying is fighting a wildfire from the air is a highly choreographed event with safety its prima ballerina and the sky is a stage for an aero ballet.
Not only is it an aero dance it also involves decisions which any military battle planner can understand, such as flanking a fire, defensive lines and offensive attacks, all to force the blaze into a box containment where it no longer is a danger, Morton said.
Part of the operational requirements is having a person to coordinate the air space, which naturally is called an air space coordinator.
In this case, it is Gary Rose, who is from Tubac, Morton said.
Besides the air tankers, helicopters, lead aircraft and overall command aircraft, other assets were being used, including unmanned aerial systems, which are part of the Department of Homeland Security, located at Fort Huachuca, which were used to locate hot spots by using forward-looking infrared sensors, Morton said.
Publics concern heard
Understanding the publics concern, he said sometimes those who are victims of a wildfire, dont understand constraints involved which limit using some assets or why wildfire fighting aircraft cant fly around the clock.
While some have called for the dispatching of DC-10s or other larger firefighting capability aircraft, Morton said the terrain where the fire was the most active is not conducive for such aircraft because they are not as maneuverable.
The larger air tankers are better suited to flat terrain or flying above the top of mountain ridges to unload retardant, he said.
They cannot maneuver in the tightly constrained canyons, as some of the fixed wing aircraft can, Morton said.
Although having Fort Huachucas Libby Army Airfield available, if just one DC-10 came in, it would dramatically impact refueling other aircraft and be a detriment to flight missions, the air operations manager said.
If a DC-10 had been requested it would have had to fly out of another airport, requiring a longer flight time and then the smaller heavies the P2s and P3s and helicopters could not have done anything for a few minutes after a DC-10 mission because of the turbulence the larger aircraft would have caused, endangering the other aircraft, Morton said.
But, he emphasized a DC-10 was not the right air platform for the Monument Fire.
And, as other experts have said, night flying is not safe and crew members have to comply with FAA rules and regulations, requiring rest and eight hours of actual flying during a 14-hour duty day, he said.
Additionally while people may believe all the air assets at Libby or at the Sierra Vista Municipal Airport, where the helicopters were working from, were totally dedicated to the Monument Fire, some of the fixed wing aircraft were supporting efforts to contain two other major wildfires in Arizona the Horseshoe 2 Fire, which also is in Cochise County, and the Wallow Fire but the majority of the flights since the Monument Fire began on June 12 have been dedicated to that blaze, Morton said.
There have been more than 1,000 flight hours over the (Monument) fire, he said.
More than flying
Michael Keator, Mortons deputy, said it is not just the flying and dropping retardant or water, there is a great deal of logistics involved when it comes to any wildfire air campaign.
Many things have to be identified, including the aircraft, airfields, retardant preparation and supplies, water supply points and fuel for the aircraft, he said.
Its not just a matter of showing up, flying and dropping, Keator said.
Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service Air Tanker Base at Libby is a staging point for a portion of the wildfire season in parts of the southwest and its availability was one area those managing the air assault on the Monument Fire did not have to worry about, he said.
Morton said, although the majority of the flying was out of Libby and the civilian side of the airfield, air assets also flew from Nogales, Ariz., and other places in support of the assault on the Monument Fire.
Stacking the aircraft begins at the top with an overall air boss, who is a flying air traffic controller supervising all the aircraft coming into and out of the drop areas, he said.
In some cases there may be a need to separate the fire fighting into two or more portions with subordinate air supervision modules controlling different areas.
At times the fixed wing airplanes, the heavies and the single engine air tankers, will be under the control of one of the modules and helicopters under another, Morton said.
When it comes to helicopter operations , they, unlike the air tankers, have to have points in which they can suck up water or retardant and then fly to an assigned area to release the liquid, the air operations manager said.
Vietnam era copters
It was not unusually to see, small helicopters, which most military people could identify as Hueys made famous by the Vietnam War and the larger Cranes also a familiar sight to veterans of that conflict, flying overhead.
Morton said many people in the community offered ponds on their property or stock tanks where the helicopters could draw water to drop but in the case of the Cranes a pond would at least have to be 10 feet deep.
A number of pumpkins which are bright orange in color were set up at different locations which water tenders would keep full to be used by the helicopters.
Since this as a high desert area, unlike Montana which he calls home which has many lakes, Morton found out water is like gold, its precious.
When it comes to the Monument Fire he said the most intense situation was the three blow-outs, when the fire broke through defensive lines and went east across Highway 92.
Unfortunately one of the blowouts happened when air assets were grounded due to high winds and other weather, which led to high densities, making it unsafe to fly, he said.
When it comes to pilots, they want to fly, he said, adding but safety is the rule and he knows on June 19, the pilots were wanting to get airborne but were told no, until it was safe to fly and they did late in the afternoon, hitting the rapidly moving fire on the east side of the highway.
As for the overall air attack on the Monument Fire, Morton said a lot of iron, meaning aircraft has been successfully used on the blaze.
Dennis Morton, the air operations manager for the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team, is 45.
He calls Dillon, Mont., home.
Before going to work for the U.S. Forest Service he worked for a Montana state agency for 15 years. He has been with the Forest Service since 2001.
His deputy, Michael Keator, is 55, and is a U.S. National Parks Service employee working at the Yellowstone National Park.
He lives in West Yellowstone, Mont.
The Monument Fire air operations has costs more than $5 million to date, which is approximately a third of the current estimated cost of the effort, said Dennis Morton, the air operations manager.
More than 1,00 flying hours have been logged, by heavy air tankers, single-engine air tankers, helicopters and support aircraft, he said.
Nearly 500,000 gallons of retardant have been dropped, mostly by the air tankers, and more than 1 million gallons of water by helicopters, Morton said.