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Guard copters return home

Civilian helicopters, which are contracted to fight fires, will take over water drops

Four Oregon National Guard helicopter crews were sent home to Pendleton Thursday evening after spending almost three weeks fighting Southern Oregon's wildfires.

The four-person crews, operating Chinook helicopters fitted with 2,400-gallon buckets, were de-activated because they were replaced by civilian helicopters contracted to fight fires, according to the Oregon National Guard. A fifth will stay on to fight the Sour Biscuit fire burning in southwestern Josephine County.

The crews, which have been here since July 14, have fought all of the region's on-going wildfires, which a longtime Guard pilot called some of the most treacherous he's ever attacked.

These have been some of the toughest flying conditions I've had on fires, that's for sure, said Capt. Sean Pierce, who has flown with the Guard's Chinook firefighting unit since it was created in 1996.

Certainly, these are really aggressive fires. You can't overlook the sheer magnitude of them, Pierce said.

Pierce's Chinook was part of a fleet of water-dropping helicopters that fire commanders have used to quell raucous flames, strengthen fire lines and save homes at the Squire fire near Ruch and the Timbered Rock fire near Trail.

During the hot parts of the day when the fire's starting to make a run, the helicopters keep the fire from running faster than we want it to, said Howard Hunter, an Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman working the Timbered Rock fire.

The helicopters have been very effective at that during both of these fires, Hunter said.

The four crews departed Thursday evening from the air base at Beagle Ranch in Sams Valley.

Pierce, of Pendleton, is the guard's aviation support facilities commander and has flown Chinooks over Oregon wildfires for the past six seasons.

The Chinook is a twin-engine, tandem-rotor helicopter designed for transportation of cargo, troops and weapons. It's about 50 feet long with two 60-foot rotors that leave the entire helicopter spanning about 100 feet.

The helicopters are staffed with a pilot, a co-pilot and two flight engineers ' one who operates all the flight systems and another who operates a bucket attached during firefighting season.

A fifth person sometimes accompanies the crew to monitor the skies when helicopter traffic is congested over a fire, allowing the pilot and co-pilot to focus on flying, said Maj. JefferyJulum, a Guard spokesman in Salem.

The pilots fly toward a designated drop zone until they are virtually overhead of the target, then turn over the controls to the water-bombing engineer.

It's not just the pilot, Pierce said. It's a total crew effort.

Pierce said his crew dropped a daily average of 75,000 to 100,000 gallons of water on area fires.

National Guard firefighting helicopters are considered secondary resources used when contracted airships are unavailable, Pierce said. So Guard crews are taken off fires once similar helicopters become available to fight specific fires, he said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail