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Fighting fires from above

August 20, 2014 by

A busy wildfire season has stretched firefighter crews and support staff to their limits trying to suppress all the new blazes emerging throughout Oregon, but their jobs are made a tad easier thanks to the not-so-secret weapon in the firefighting arsenal, air attack.

Danny Moseley and Jody Pillatzki are two of the pilots stationed at Lakeview airport on 100-day contracts to drop fire retardant wherever and whenever it is needed. Working in coordination with the Lakeview Interagency Fire Center (LIFC), they remain on call with aircraft ready to go whenever the time comes to scramble.

“One thing we do really well is initial attack,” says Moseley, a veteran of firebombing and agricultural crop dusting. “We’re quick to get up, quite often we’re the first ones on scene at a new fire beating the ground units.”

Flying Air Tractor 202’s, single engine prop planes capable of carrying 800 gallons of fire retardant with a flight range of 4.5 hours, pilots are stationed at the airport living out of suitcases for months away from family. When dispatch orders are received from the LIFC, planes are expected to be airborne within 15 minutes.

Overseeing it all is Vicki Baker, the single engine air tanker manager and assistant fire training officer. It is her job to track the paperwork, coordinate pilots and manage aircraft. When a flight order comes in for immediate air support, known as a “kneeboard,” it is Baker’s responsibility to assign who flies first.

“Everyone plays their role in coordinating all the different units,” said Baker. “I know that if dispatch needs seats (air support) I make sure we’re ready to go.”

Their role is that of support. Much like with the military, although air supremacy can be effective in neutralizing an enemy, it still takes boots on the ground to win the war.

“Without the ground guys it’s not going to get done,” said Pillatzki. “It’s important for us to have a quick response to limit fires, but I don’t care how much mud we throw at a fire sometimes it doesn’t stop it, we have to have that ground support. They always seem happy we’re there, but the bottom line is that we’re happy that they are there.”

Far from the glamorization of Hollywood films, the role of the fire-bomber pilot involves more reading of terrain and coordination with air support than heroic ducking in and out of blazing trees to save trapped fire crews from certain doom. Multiple factors like winds, terrain and smoke are taken into account before aircraft drop their loads, doing so at greater heights to create a rain effect on the targeted area rather than a high velocity bomb of slurry.

“We do a visual run over the area first, then talk with air support to make sure ground crews are clear before we drop,” said Moseley, now in his third year as a fire-bomber. “Sometimes not everyone is talking though and people get painted, but we do our best to avoid that. We do our best to avoid smoke and heat.”

The flight crews may be based here, but they assist with fires throughout the region, and may be reassigned during their contract to areas in more need of their services.

Though the pilots may only be temporary residents during fire season, the community effort from all involved in fire season hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“It’s been fun here in Lakeview,” said Moseley. “All the air crews have been great and dispatch has done a tremendous job, when we have good air attack and support knows how to coordinate resources we can really make things happen.”

For video of Lakeview’s fire-bombers visit the Examiner’s youtube channel or www.lakecountyexam.com.

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