How wildland firefighters saved the last Stinson A Trimotor

They had about 24 hours before the fire bore down on them.

Above: Bureau of Land Management wildland firefighters in Alaska pose in 1968 with the Stinson A Trimotor aircraft that they protected from a wildfire. Photo provided by Doug Lutz and used with permission.

In 1968 Doug Lutz and three of his companions left their jobs at Glacier National Park in Montana to “seek fame and fortune in Alaska”. They got hired by the Bureau of Land Management as wildland firefighters and were soon put to work on a wildfire within sight of Mt. McKinley. They only had hand tools, since at the time the logistics of providing gasoline for chain saws in the remote tundra was difficult, Mr. Lutz said.

With 15 of his co-workers, he volunteered for an assignment to protect a very unique aircraft from an approaching wildfire. It was the last Stinson A Trimotor in existence at that time, NC15165, one of only 31 or 32 that were built. It crashed in 1947 and J. D. “Red” Berry had been trying off and on since 1964 to get it out of the tundra.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Disciples of Flight written by Mr. Lutz, used here with his permission:

…[On] August 11, a helicopter set our crew of sixteen men down near the Stinson Trimotor somewhere near the Toklat and Kantishna Rivers to prepare for the oncoming fire. We figured we had about 24 hours to dig a fire line down to permafrost, cut the existing trees down, drag them to the outside of the fire line, and back-burn the fuel before the fire hit. We worked feverishly to prepare for the onslaught, resting only when we dropped from exhaustion. I marveled at the very reason for our task, as the Stinson Trimotor, partially dismantled, was the most incredible aircraft I had ever seen. The interior appeared to be in excellent condition and with a little imagination, it was easy to imagine what a splendid machine it was in its prime.

We thought we were pretty well prepared as the fire reached an old CAT [dozer] a mile or two away that we were told had broken down trying to get the Stinson out sometime before. With a great explosion of the fuel drums, we knew our time was near. As the front hit us, the incredible heat, smoke, and wind generated by Z-83 (the BLM fire designation) defied comprehension and lies in my memory as the most vivid reminder of my insignificance in the grand plan of things. As an 18-year old boy, the next few days would transform me into a man with a little greater appreciation for life.

The only thing we could do with the fire was to constantly walk around the fire line and put out any spot fires that may have jumped. The smoke was so intense that the only way one could breathe was to drop to the ground, put your face on the tundra, and breathe the air pockets. Visibility was nil and the heat incredible. Thank God for Visine! We ran out of food on about the third day, drinking water was nearly gone, and our radio to the outside broke down. We were later told that BLM headquarters had pretty much given us up for lost and were contemplating notifying next of kin. Needless to say, we survived, but it certainly was no picnic. I recall having a rousing game of poker inside the Stinson A, although just being alive was the biggest jackpot we could think of at the time.

[…]

A snapshot was taken on the fourth day, August 14, by one of the guys who sent me a small print later that fall. The most vivid picture, however, resides only in my mind as the helicopter raised up to take us home. The two acres or so within the fire line was resplendent green, and as far as you could see in every direction was starkly black. And the Stinson Trimotor sitting in the center of the green circle, looking so proud and incredibly alive, remains as one of the most significant and indelible images of my life…

Mr. Lutz is in the photo above, in the bottom row, second from the right. He said the photo was taken by a member of the helicopter rescue crew with, he believes, Terry Wheeler’s camera.

By the early 1970s J.D. “Red” Berry, who had acquired the rights to the Stinson in 1964, retrieved the aircraft and sold it to Eugene Coppock. Mr. Coppock rebuilt it and had it flying again in 1979. The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum purchased it in 1988 and ten years later sold it to Greg Herrick’s Golden Wings Museum at Blaine Airport in Minnesota, who restored it. H.O Aircraft  took on that job which required taking the aircraft COMPLETELY APART down to the frame, portions of which had to be fabricated and replaced.

Stenson A Trimotor
The restored Stenson A Trimotor. Photo by Ahunt at Sun ‘n Fun 2006 in Lakeland, Florida.

Mr. Lutz gave us some additional information about the Stenson A Trimotor:

Of the 30 or 31 Stinson A’s to be built, they lived a short life as a passenger plane as the DC2 and DC3 soon displaced them. Four of the Stinson A’s made it to Australia and the others were relegated to mail run airmail, although Air India used them commercially. They were perfect for bush pilots in Alaska. NC15165 crashed in 1947 on a mail run and sat there until Red Berry started an incredible journey to get it out of the tundra.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Doug Lutz.

Wildfire News, March 7, 2016

Alaska April wildfire potential
April wildfire potential in Alaska, based on vegetation conditions and weather predictions.

Fire officials say to ‘expect an early start’ to Alaska wildfire season.

Shooter’s tracer rounds ignite 2-day forest fire at Missouri gun range

A proposed Utah law would enable police to shoot drones, but people have been arrested for doing so.

–A massive bushfire cut off and isolated the South Island town of Hanmer Springs, New Zealand on Tuesday (local time).

–The Arizona Wildfire Academy is taking place in Prescott this week.

Hubbardston, Massachusetts gets military surplus truck to help battle brush fires.

Hubbardston Mass mil surplus truck
Hubbardston, Mass. military surplus truck. Photo: Hubbardston Fire Department.

Alaska’s first wildfire of 2016

The first wildfire in Alaska this year occurred Monday south of Delta Junction.

Alaska fire Delta Junction
Tim Holoday of the Delta Wind took this photo of the fire south of Delta Junction on February 22, 2016.

In a part of Alaska that would normally be covered with snow on February 22 a wildfire burned about two acres yesterday.

Live-fire training by military personnel in the Donnelly Training Area approximately 10 miles south of Delta Junction (map) started the blaze. Firefighters from the Fort Greely Fire Department responded to the fire that was burning in open tundra and driven by 25 mph winds, according to Branden Petersen, assistant fire manager for the Alaska Fire Service’s Military Zone.

The absence of snow in the area allowed the fire to spread, Mr. Petersen said.

The Alaska Fire Service, the fire suppression agency responsible for protecting military lands in Alaska, mobilized four personnel to respond to the fire but they were released after the Fort Greely firefighters responded.

Alaska wildfire destroys homes in village on Kodiak Island

A wind-driven wildfire ignited late Thursday night outside the Alaskan village of Chiniak, on Kodiak Island off the coast from Anchorage.

Village residents began evacuating around 11 p.m. on Thursday, and by early Friday morning local police were urged those remaining to leave as the fire spread, according to reports by the Alaska Dispatch News.

By Friday morning, crews estimated that the fire had burned 2,000 acres. A handful of homes and the local library were destroyed; reports did not say how many homes were burned.

Acres burned in Alaska and Canada far ahead of average

Big Beaver Creek Fire
The Alaska Highway was closed to all traffic due to aggressive fire behavior observed on the Big Beaver Creek Fire in British Columbia Wednesday afternoon. The highway is closed between 386 km (Mile 250) and 418 km (Mile 260). British Columbia Wildfire Service photo.

It is barely mid-summer and wildfire activity in Alaska and western Canada has been much higher than average for this time of the year. As of July 8, the number of acres burned in Alaska is the second highest ever recorded for an entire year — 2004 holds the present record, but on a year to date basis, the state now is ahead of the same date in 2004 for acres burned.

The area blackened in Canada already exceeds the annual 10-year average for an entire year. The government has activated about 1,000 military personnel to help fight wildfires in Saskatchewan. Firefighters from eastern Canada have been mobilized to assist in the western provinces, and one BAe-146 air tanker from Missoula, Montana is also lending a hand.

Canada weeks area burned through July 1, 2015
Canada area burned on a weekly basis through July 1, 2015.

Alaska is also receiving help from firefighters in the lower 48 states. For example on Tuesday five 20-person crews were dispatched from California to Alaska, while snow flurries have been occurring for the past several days on the Inyo National Forest in California. Other Forests in the state received rain on Wednesday.

Here are some wildfire numbers, current on July 8, 2015:

  • United States: 30,017 fires, 3,821,726 acres
  • Alaska: 650 fires, 3,208,107 acres
  • Canada: 4,672 fires, 6,546,562 acres
Canada fires, July 8, 2015
Canada fires, July 8, 2015
Alaska Fires July 8, 2015
Alaska Fires July 8, 2015

1.7 million acres burning in Alaska wildfires

Jumper arriving at Kobe Fire
Smokejumper arriving at the Kobe Fire, six miles NE of Mile Post 275 on the Parks Highway in Alaska. Photo by Zoey Taylor.

There are 285 active fires burning in Alaska that have charred 1.7 million acres, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. Of those 285 fires, 41 are staffed and the other 244 are being monitored.

The National Interagency Coordination Center reports that the firefighting resources assigned to fires in Alaska include: 106 hand crews, 33 engines, and 29 helicopters.

Alaska top 10 fires
These are the top 10 fires, by size, currently reported by InciWeb in Alaska.

A fun fact — a Bureau of Land Management Type 3 helicopter (H-173BH) recently completed a four-day trip to an assignment in Alaska. It took off from Rifle, Colorado on June 23 and arrived in Fairbanks June 26. The BLM sent other Type 3 helicopters, one each, from Montana, Wyoming and Utah. Two Forest Service Type 2 helicopters were also recently dispatched from the lower 48 states. In addition, a Type 1 CWN helicopter, Croman 701, an S-61, was also sent to Alaska.

Map of Alaska Fires June 29, 2015
Map of Alaska Fires, at 3:56 p.m. MT, June 29, 2015.

 

Whitefish Fire
Whitefish Fire, 8 miles south of Kalskag, June 17, 2015.