Fire Boss in Dallesport

Pilot Don MacDonald kneels on the float of the Air Boss firefighting aircraft now based at the regional airport in Dallesport. The plane can scoop and deliver up to 900 gallons of water per pass while working a fire. A second Air Boss is scheduled to be based at the airport at the end of June. The planes are contracted with Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and made available to fight fires in Oregon and Washington. Mark B. Gibson photo

One Fire Boss firefighting aircraft arrived June 1 at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport in Dallesport, and a second is due to arrive by July 1 where both will be based through the summer.

This will be the third year the Washington Department of Natural Resources has based the single-engine tanker aircraft in Dallesport for the summer fire season.

Although Washington DNR has first priority, the aircraft are available to fight fires for “anybody that calls; the feds, BLM, Oregon or Washington,” said Darren Lacock, manager for fixed base operator Tacaero, which oversees flight and ground operations at the airport.

Lacock said the regional airport serves as an important base for firefighting aircraft working in the two-state region of the Gorge.

“The airport is a central point for Oregon and Washington, and it becomes a base for any fire within a 50-mile radius,” he explained.

Last year, the airport served as base for 17 helicopters  and 13 fixed-wing aircraft during the Substation Fire.

“We had fire aircraft everywhere,” he recalled, in addition to the business jets and general aviation aircraft traffic the airport attracts throughout the year.

Lacock hires extra crew every summer for fire season to help with fueling and parking aircraft, as well as organizing arrivals and departures. “We’ve gotten the routine down pretty well,” he said. “We’re set up and prepared.”

The fire boss is a officially a SEAT, or Single Engine Air Tanker, named for the specialized floats that allow the plane to scoop water from rivers and lakes while on a fire, said pilot Don MacDonald. “It’s a modified crop duster,” he added.

The plane is equipped with infrared cameras, and can scoop up to 800 gallons per load while flying 65 knots (75 miles per hour). Each pass to fill the tanks, located between the pilot and the engine, takes between 15 and 20 seconds, MacDonald said.

The amount of water taken up per scoop increases as fuel is burned off, lightening the aircraft and allowing more water to be loaded.

The fire boss works in conjunction with an aereocommander, a second fixed-wing aircraft that controls the air space, directs drops and makes sure ground crews are clear of the drop site.

The SEAT Base established for the summer in Dallesport will handle aircraft maintenance, loading and dispatch for the aircraft.

 MacDonald said it’s an efficient and  responsive operation. “It’s usually nine minutes from the time we receive the paperwork to the time I’m in the air,” he said. He’s proud of that response time; he officially has 15 minutes to get off the ground once orders are received.

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