Reload bases for the DC-10 air tanker

DC-10 Tanker 911 on the Robbers Fire
DC-10 Tanker 911 on the Robbers Fire in California July 15, 2012. Photo by David Wilson. (Click to see a larger version.)

With the DC-10 being activated again, I am reminded of the shortage of air tankers during the Myrtle fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota a few weeks ago, which during the first six hours had no large air tankers. On the radio a conversation between two people in the Operations section could be heard discussing the no-show of the air show. I could sense the frustration in their voices. One of them suggested that they consider requesting the DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, but they did not know with certainty the nearest air tanker base where it could land and reload with retardant.

They knew that the aircraft is too large for most of the dozens of air tanker bases, since it has a wing span of around 160 feet and a weight of about a half million pounds. The physical layout of the bases and the runway, taxiways, and ramps at the airports are not designed for the size and weight of such a large air tanker.

However, there are eight bases that can accommodate the DC-10 in the western United States, according to Pam Baltimore, an Acting Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington D.C.

  • SBD – San Bernardino, CA
  • MCC – McClellen – CA (Sacramento)
  • MWH – Moses Lake, WA
  • BOI – Boise, ID
  • IWA – Mesa-Gateway, AZ (Phoenix)
  • HIF – Hill AFB, UT
  • HLN – Helena, MT
  • CPR – Casper, WY

When contemplating using a DC-10 air tanker on a fire, aviation personnel consider, in addition to the cost per delivered gallon, the fact that it can cruise at 564 MPH, and the retardant capacity of 11,600 gallons, equivalent to almost six P2V or four BAe-146 air tankers, which carry about 2,000 and 3,000 gallons, respectively.

Black Hills land managers proactively organizing to fight fires

Myrtle Fire
The Myrtle Fire at 4:12 p.m. MT, July 19, 2012, looking north across Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Since the Myrtle fire burned over 10,000 acres and racked up $4,000,000 in suppression costs, land managers in the Black Hills of South Dakota have become more proactive and aggressive in organizing to fight wildfires. The agencies have been attacking new fires with enough resources to stop the spread within the first burning period. And it has not been easy in all cases. While dozens of lightning-caused fires have burned less than two acres, a few fires have burned several hundred acres but were stopped the same day.

In addition — they have beefed up the number of ground resources available for initial and extended attack of new fires; have increased the number of helicopters available at Custer; on most days there have been a couple of heavy air tankers available at Rapid City; and today they announced that fire managers from the Black Hills National Forest, the National Park Service, and the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression entered into an agreement to order a Type 2 Incident Management Team to operate a Command and Mobilization Center. The Team will be assisting with initial attack of fires that grow beyond the capabilities of local resources; assisting the local units by tracking and handling the administrative processes of incoming personnel, crews and equipment; and ordering and resupplying the tools, equipment and other items to ensure that firefighters are ready to go to the next fire.

These are all welcome improvements, and the land managers should be commended for their success in dealing with the many new fires over the last eight days.

This was not necessarily the case when the Myrtle fire started at 1:30 p.m. MT on July 19. From the radio traffic I heard, the first large air tankers were requested at approximately 3:40 p.m. and I saw the first one arrive over the fire at 7:14 p.m. By that time, the Type 1 Incident Management Team, which is used for managing the largest and most complex fires, had already been ordered. I don’t know if a squadron of air tankers over the fire in the first 30 minutes would have made a big difference, but for whatever reason, the fixed wing aerial resources were not available to assist the firefighters on the ground.

As we frequently say, air tankers don’t put out fires, boots on the ground do. But air tankers and helicopters can greatly enhance their effectiveness. An investment in flight time and retardant within the first 30 minutes can, in some cases, save the taxpayers millions of dollars and reduce the loss of lives and property. Having only nine large air tankers available on long term contracts for the entire country makes this objective difficult to achieve. Ten years ago we had 53.

On June 26 we provided a solution for reducing the number of megafires. It began like this:

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires: Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible…


Firefighting, structure protection, and public relations

Myrtle ICP July 26, 2012
What is left of the Myrtle Fire Incident Command Post at Custer High School, July 26, 2012. The fire is contained and has been turned over to a smaller Incident Management Team, a Type 3 team. Photo by Bill Gabbert (click to enlarge)

When the Myrtle fire, which is now contained, was threatening structures between Pringle and Hot Springs, South Dakota, many firefighters were assigned to structure protection. Most homeowners who evacuate have little understanding of what will happen around their house while they are hunkering down in a motel or school gym. Firefighters, when time permits, will do far more than spray water on the structure, as Lynn and Gardner Gray discovered when they visited their home near Pringle the day after they evacuated.

Jim Kent, a columnist for the Rapid City Journal wrote about the Gray’s experience in today’s edition. Here is an excerpt:

…During a return visit the following day, Lynn encountered four firefighters taking what she considered extraordinary steps to fully protect her property.

Once the Myrtle Fire moved out of range and the couple were back in their house, Lynn insisted I tour the property so she could point out the care and attention given by complete strangers.

From removing the propane tank on the Grays’ outdoor grill, to fully sealing their garage door and saturating 6 cords of wood stacked against the side of their home, the firefighters left no combustion hazard to chance.

They even took down a flammable decorative flag and repositioned a wood-handle rake before digging a protective trench around the property. In fact, the list of what the firefighters actually did is too long to include here.

And speaking of public relations, Craig Bobzien, the Forest Supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, met with a group of citizens from the Edgemont area who had concerns about how the White Draw fire was fought. Mr. Bobzien explained in a Rapid City Journal article attributed to him that he had heard about some complaints in the media and wanted to hear them first hand.

White Draw Fire
White Draw Fire, June 29, 2012 Photo by Bill Gabbert

Those citizens from the Edgemont have been generating a lot of publicity about how some of them thought the firefighters could have stopped the 9,000-acre rapidly spreading timber fire in late June if only they had paid more attention to the locals. Previously, on July 6 South Dakota Senator John Thune traveled to Edgemont with reporters and photographers in tow to also meet with those citizens. This was the fire on which a military C-130 MAFFS air tanker crashed, killing four members of the crew and injuring two others.

South Dakota: Myrtle fire 75% contained

Myrtle fire
Myrtle fire, near Hwy. 385 and Beaver Creek Road, July 23, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Thanks to the great efforts by firefighters, and favorable weather, the incident management team is calling the Myrtle fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota 75 percent contained. The size has not changed in the last few days, and remains at 10,080 acres. Monday evening I visited the fire and saw no major fire activity, only scattered smokes.

Two weather stations near the fire measured 0.28″ and 0.30″ of rain between 9 and 11 p.m. on Monday, but it was a mixed blessing, in that it came with a great deal of lightning, as you can see in these photos.

Investigators determined that the likely cause of the fire was a U.S. Forest Service road grader that was performing road maintenance. The belief is that the metal blade fractured a rock on the road surface igniting the grassy fuels on the roadside.

Myrtle fire
“A Careless Match Destroys”. A sign within the Myrtle fire, July 23, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

All evacuations and road closures have been lifted, and electrical power as been restored to primary residences in the area. Wind Cave National Park plans to reopen today.

A map of the fire current as of Monday night can be found HERE. While it came very close, the fire still has not burned anything within Wind Cave National Park.

Myrtle fire
Sunset over the Myrtle fire, looking across Wind Cave National Park, July 23, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Photos from a burning operation at the Myrtle fire in South Dakota

Myrtle Fire burnout Song Dog Rd
A helicopter dropped off a couple of passengers at the intersection of Song Dog Road and Argyle Road.

Today I spent several hours on the south end of the Myrtle fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota where firefighters were successfully conducting an extensive burning operation in Cold Brook Canyon and Song Dog Road. They usually had the wind at their backs and the milder weather along with a little rain yesterday minimized any extreme fire behavior, but the fire still burned extremely well. It only took a few drops out of the drip torches to convince the fire to spread quickly from the firelines and roads into the timber. The temperature maxed out at about 90 while the relative humidity was in the high 20s.

Myrtle Fire burnout Song Dog Road
Tom Contreras (on the right), the Forest Supervisor of the Angeles National Forest in Southern California drove up in a vehicle on Argyle Road and said hello. He explained that he was representing the Regional Forester of the local Rocky Mountain Region. (How do I get that job?)

Myrtle Fire burnout Song Dog Road

Firefighters enjoy burning operations. It’s not as physically exhausting as constructing fireline, for example, and it can be very satisfying to conduct a well-planned and skillfully executed burnout. You can very quickly see the effects of your efforts, whether they are positive, or if you’re chasing spot fires across the fireline.

Myrtle Fire burnout Song Dog Road
Firefighter, armed with a pine bough and a piece of sharpened metal attached to the end of a stick. With the exception of having better chain saws, the job of a hot shot crewperson has not changed much in the last 60 years.

Myrtle Fire burnout Song Dog Road

Two of the crews working on this operation today were the Sawtooth and the San Juan Hotshots. It is always a pleasure to see such highly trained and experienced crews work. This was not a simple burning operation, and it involved igniting some distance away from the firelines to draw in the heat that was later generated closer to the lines. These crews did it as if they do it every day, with very little verbal direction from the supervisors. They know their jobs. The only raised voice I heard was when someone running a drip torch completed her assignment, stopped to extinguish the torch with her back to what she had just lit, and didn’t realize that 3-foot flames were heading her direction and were about 6 feet away. Someone said “GET OUT OF THERE!”. And she did. Safely. No harm done.

(More photos are below.)


Continue reading “Photos from a burning operation at the Myrtle fire in South Dakota”

Using a flare pistol to ignite burnout operation

The video above is a slide show of a series of photographs shot in very quick succession while a member of the San Juan Hotshots used a flare pistol to ignite areas along Cold Creek Canyon during a burnout operation on the Myrtle Fire, July 22, 2012. The photos were taken by Bill Gabbert.