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Air attack vital in rugged terrain

A YELLOW HELICOPTER, above, uses a siphon to load water and drops the load on the fire much like a retardant plane. At left, a Chinook helicopter lifts off headed toward a reservoir at a higher elevation in preparation to drop a load of water. People on the ground at the bottom of the photo, offer scale to show the size of the air ship.

A YELLOW HELICOPTER, above, uses a siphon to load water and drops the load on the fire much like a retardant plane. At left, a Chinook helicopter lifts off headed toward a reservoir at a higher elevation in preparation to drop a load of water. People on the ground at the bottom of the photo, offer scale to show the size of the air ship. Photo by Kathy Ursprung.

DALLESPORT — The air attack on the Blackburn Fire will get some added help after the arrival of three National Guard helicopters.

The trio will bring the air complement up to 10 total helicopters, coordinated by an air attack team leader.

“He’s flying around in a smaller helicopter, providing aerial supervision, coordinating all the aircraft over the fire,” explained Scott Swearingen, the Air Operations Branch chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Swearingen is on the ground command trailer at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport. “He tells them what to do. He’ll radio back to the helibase to a radio operator in the front of the command trailer that he wants such and such helicopter.”

In the narrow, craggy canyons around the rural creeks outside The Dalles, the aerial attack on a wildfire is particularly critical. Ground firefighters can’t safely go into some of the burning areas. That’s when a helicopter hauling a bucket or a belly full of 1,000 or more gallons of water is a fire commander’s best friend.

“We also have air tankers working with fire retardants,” Swearingen said.

Calling in the resources needed to fight a complicated and aggressive fire like Blackburn has been a challenge. Across the West, firefighting resources have been in short supply and coordinators have been juggling resources from fire to fire as they become available.

“When private resources are in short supply, that’s when we can call on some other public resources,” Swearingen said, thus the National Guard’s arrival on the scene.

Fire conditions and FAA rules dictate how and when the air attack can operate.

At last night’s community meeting, a resident asked why the helicopters weren’t flying in the morning when the fire is calmer and the air attack might have more benefit.

The choppers are limited to eight hours of flying a day, explained Kris Kane, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s wildfire incident commander on the Government Flats Fire Compex. If they fly in the morning, they aren’t available in the afternoon and evening when stronger winds and worsening fire conditions make their use vital.

Fire conditions also play a role.

“This morning, we were pretty much smoked out,” said Swearingen. “We have to be able to see the fire.”

Also wind speed upward of 30 miles per hour can put the air attack out of business.

“If we put retardant and water on the fire, it’s just going to blow around.”

All told, about 30 crew members are working on the air attack.

Each Chinook helicopter has a 10-member crew, two pilots and eight maintenance people, smaller ships have anywhere from two to eight crew members.

The bucket ships are relying on ponds and reservoirs up by the fire, a necessity to deal with the weight of hauling a large volume of water. Higher temperatures add to the challenge.

“It’s hard for them if they’re down low,” Swearingen said. “It takes a lot of energy to lift it high. If you can get water from ponds above the fire or on the same level, it’s lot easier.”

Managers at the airport have been working to support the air attack.

“The only thing we’re trying to do is support them,” said Rolf Anderson. “If they need something, we try to get it. We’re just here to help.”

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