Veteran pilot Ron Vogt throttled the engine as the Cessna 206 rose into the hot Thursday afternoon air after having taxied out of the tanker base at the Medford airport.
"Let's start up in the Trail Creek country today," said Matt Krunglevich, an air tactical group supervisor with the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District.
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"All right," Vogt replied as he banked toward the north.
They were heading out on a 21/2;-hour reconnaissance of the district, which blankets Jackson and Josephine counties. Vogt and Krunglevich were looking for sleepers, lightning-caused fires that often smolder for a week or so before coming to life, producing a telltale column of smoke.
With more than $60 million already spent on the local fires that have burned more than 70,000 acres this summer in southwest Oregon, the goal is to keep new fires from growing into infernos in the dry forests.
"We like to put them out quick and keep them as small as possible," said Krunglevich, 33, a former ground-pounding firefighter who knows his way around a wildfire. "It helps the landowner and it certainly reduces our costs. We try to hit everything really hard."
The ODF's firefighters protect U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, as well as state, county and private forest, brush and grass lands in the two counties.
More than 40 "smokes" — small lightning-caused fires — have been spotted in the district this fire season by airborne surveillance, Krunglevich said.
"That's a combination of this aircraft and helicopters," he said. "We've put a lot of hours on our aircraft this year. We try to stay opposite of one another when we are looking for fires."
That is for safety as well as to enable the airborne spotters to cover more ground, he noted.
"Today we will cover the entire district," he said of the flight. "We will also coordinate with all the other fires in the area — Big Windy, Douglas Complex and Whiskey fires.
"We want to stay out of their air zone but we will coordinate with them so we can get in and around to look for smokes," added the Oregon State University graduate with a degree in forest management. "Our reconnaissance will end north of Grants Pass."
The aircraft would head north, then fly east, south, west and back north, coming full circle to Medford.
"At the beginning of the season, we were all getting to know each other," Krunglevich said. "Now we kind of read each other's minds in where we want to go, what we want to do."
Before launching, Vogt, 59, a contract pilot for ODF, noted he has been a pilot for 37 years, having learned to fly in the Marine Corps during a six-year hitch that ended in 1982. The former first lieutenant flies both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
"My number of takeoffs equal my number of landings," he quipped of safe round trips.
Although the aircraft was built in the mid-1960s, it's in good shape, he assured two MT staffers on the flight.
"It's got a new engine, new radio, new glass," he noted.
During the flight, Krunglevich pulls up an image on his laptop of the district where recent lightning strikes have been recorded.
"This gives us an idea of where they might be," Krunglevich said above the roar of the engine and the wind buffeting the airplane.
The high-wing aircraft — its wings are above the cabin — provides the occupants with an eagle-eye view of the land below.
Smokes aren't the only things spotted during the recon flights, which are usually launched twice a day following lightning activity.
"There is a marijuana grow off the left wing," Vogt observed just minutes into the flight.
The pot patch, presumably a legal medical-use operation, was one of many seen in the rural-urban interface during the flight. From high above, they stand out like huge tomato plants growing on a terrace.
Given the fact wildfires don't differentiate between ODF-protected land and U.S. Forest Service land, the spotters also keep an eye out for smokes on neighboring national forest land as part of a cooperative effort between the two agencies, Krunglevich said.
"Between us and the Forest Service, we have nearly perpetual flights all the time," he said.
Although no new smokes would be spotted during this flight, it accomplished its mission of making sure nothing was brewing out there beyond the fires already being fought, he said.
In the afternoon sun, the shadow of the plane could be seen 2,500 feet below as it passed over Shady Cove, north to Trail and beyond Lost Creek Reservoir.
"These fires have restricted visibility a little — kind of a bummer," Krunglevich said, although he noted it didn't prevent fire detection.
"Look for a column coming up out of the trees," he said.
The plane crossed over into the Elk Creek drainage, passed above Prospect and the old Medco pond. The left wing soon pointed directly at Mount McLoughlin. Robinson Butte fire lookout, where Rob Du Brey stood watch, passed by under the belly of the plane.
After flying over the Soda Mountain lookout and Pilot Rock, Vogt swung the plane's nose to the southwest, deeper into the Siskiyou Mountains.
"I can't see anything now," Krunglevich said as the smoke thickened.
"Smoke is pushing up against the Siskiyou," Vogt said.
With that, he headed into the Applegate Valley, where the smoke began to clear a bit.
"When we get to (highway) 199, I'd like to swing over to Cave Junction and that area," Krunglevich said.
"Better visibility over here," Vogt noted.
After crossing the mountains a few miles west of the Oregon Caves, the aircraft flew north over the Rough and Ready Creek drainage on the southern end of the Illinois Valley. Much of Oregon to the north appeared to be burning, thanks to the Big Windy, Whiskey and Douglas Complex fires.
Those fires were among an estimated 75 blazes started by a July 26 lightning storm. Firefighters were able to knock down the lion's share of the fires but were unable to get to those big blazes before they began making a run, Krunglevich observed.
"That's what we are trying to prevent," he reiterated. "We want to spot them so we can get to them before they can get away from us."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.