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Helicopter pilots seem like unlikely arsonists

My friend and I are concerned about arson in the skies. Are the forest fire investigators thoroughly checking out the helicopter pilots for arson activity? It would be simple for a pilot to drop water and fire retardant and also drop fire devices. Arsonists are hard to stop, and every effort to prevent arson must be made. These Southern Oregon fires are devastating and horrible!

— D.R.

While wildland and structural firefighters have occasionally been arrested for arson in the nation, helicopter pilots fighting wildfires would have a very difficult time starting fires and evading detection, fire officials said.

“With a helicopter, it would be very hard to pull off. It would be highly unlikely someone could get away with it,” said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons.

Aircraft, including drones, are sometimes used to drop chemical-filled ping pong balls that ignite fires for burnout operations. Firefighters sometimes intentionally burn the land to deprive a wildfire of fuel and stop its growth.

It takes a whole team to outfit a helicopter with ping pong balls and dispensing equipment — not a solo pilot, Gibbons said.

“There’s no way they could do it on the sly without other fire people knowing,” she said.

Fighting a wildfire is akin to fighting a war, with a military-style chain of command that makes plans and gives out instructions, Gibbons said.

“Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Pilots especially are tied in for logistical and safety reasons. Nobody’s just out there doing what they want. It’s planned, executed and monitored,” she said.

All agency-contracted manned aircraft are tracked with a system called Automated Flight Following. The system allows aerial resources to be tracked for safety and search-and-rescue purposes, Forest Service officials said.

“This permits us to know where the aircraft is located at all times, which would detect a pattern if we were getting fire starts association with a particular aircraft,” officials said in a statement.

Forest Service officials said they can understand public concerns about arson given the increase in fire activity over the past few summers.

“The people who fight wildland fires are typically cut of a very high moral cloth, and they are generally not the type of people who start fires,” officials said. “They love their jobs and the challenge of fighting wildland fires. They feel a deep responsibility to protect numerous values at risk, including the people living in nearby communities, property, infrastructure and our highly valued natural resources.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry, which fights fires on private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management property, also said it would be hard for a firefighting pilot to start fires from the sky.

Pilots who work for ODF don’t drop ignition devices to create burnouts. The pilots work on firefighting and reconnaissance, said ODF spokeswoman Natalie Weber.

Like pilots who work for the Forest Service, ODF pilots are closely tied in with the firefighting operation and don’t work alone.

“We’re very much a team, so there’s not much room to go rogue,” Weber said.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.