When a wildfire roars to life, helicopters race in for the initial attack, dropping loads of retardant or water to slow advancing flames.
But conditions this summer have been particularly treacherous, with smoke cutting visibility so severely that pilots can’t fly at times.
Visibility, wind and steep terrain are all factors pilots weigh before they decide to swoop in and make a drop.
“For a pilot, you really can get caught up in the moment,” said Aaron Packer, a pilot with Reeder Flying Service. “You need to control your emotions and concentrate on what’s important.”
Packer works out of a temporary helicopter base on Galice Road, next to Jumpoff Joe Creek, that is one of the biggest in the area and is primarily used to support the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires, though it does provide aerial support as needed for other fires.
Striking a balance between pilot safety and backing ground crews, Packer, a 40-year-old resident of Twin Falls, Idaho, said anybody on the flight team can make the call to cancel an operation if conditions aren’t right.
“The cowboy days are kind of fading out,” Packer said.
Still, a helicopter seems to be a safer option for Packer than crews who work with hand tools to build fire control lines.
“I can go and land,” he said. “I can fly away, and they’re still stuck on the ground.”
Helicopters perform a number of missions, including reconnaissance, bucket drops to help ground crews beef up lines and sometimes transporting crews out to remote areas along the fires. Some helicopters drop flaming ping-pong balls to start backfires.
Generally, helicopters work around the edge of flames, not attacking them directly but trying to slow down their momentum.
“If you’re looking at 100-foot flames, a helicopter wouldn’t be effective,” Packer said.
Pilots rely on the ability to see the ground, providing a solid reference before flying into a rugged area.
If visibility is really bad, Packer said, “You get thinking you’re stationary but you’re really moving backward.”
Last Wednesday, Packer headed out to look at the west side of the Klondike fire, near Cave Junction.
“I started losing my ground reference,” he said. “I said, ‘It isn’t going to work, we’re going to go back.’”
Packer said crews on the ground often make a call for aerial support, and he said he’s aware of the importance of making a drop to help keep them safe.
While he’s never rescued fire crews, Packer said he’s heard of other pilots using an empty water bucket attached to the helicopter to lift people to safety.
But firefighters on the ground are trained to map out escape routes, so they won’t get themselves in binds, Packer said.
On Wednesday when the Ramsey Canyon fire roared to life north of Sams Valley, pilots raced to help slow its advance.
Unfortunately, two helicopters, including one heavy lift, were broken. One of the helicopters had a hydraulic problem as it flew to Ramsey Canyon, forcing it to return to base.
“This has been a bad year for aviation,” said Chris Volpe, who was in charge of the communications hub for the helicopter base.
On the Taylor Creek fire, as many as 10 helicopters have been used at the peak of operations compared to three currently stationed at the Galice Road base for the Klondike.
Volpe points to a screen that shows a map of Southern Oregon with little flags designating the location of the helicopters.
This year, the use of drones has changed the dynamics for aerial operations. Drones have been used for reconnaissance in areas inaccessible or too dangerous for helicopters. They’ve also been used to ignite backburns with incendiary ping-pong balls.
Currently, though, the drones don’t have the same location technology as helicopters, so base command doesn’t know their precise locations, though drone operators file flight plans.
Volpe said he’s hoping the drones will have the location technology by next fire season so that all aviation activity can be monitored.
Peter Frenzen, public information officer for the Joint Information Center, said the helicopters based near the Klondike are shared between all the fires burning in Southern Oregon.
“They go out according to visibility and what are the highest priorities,” he said.
One of the heavy-lift helicopters had engine trouble but was expected to be back on line for the weekend, Frenzen said.
Helicopters are primarily working on the western front of the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires, burning to the west of Grants Pass.
Helicopters are one of the first pieces of equipment called out when flames flare up on a new fire.
“It’s for rapid response,” Frenzen said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.