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An inside look at aerial firefighting — the high-stakes game of combatting the West’s unprecedented wildfires on high

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An inside look at aerial firefighting of raging West Coast wildfires – Business Insider

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

  • As a harsh wildfire season burns across the western US, an important method of fighting those fires soars above.
  • In addition to ground crews, aircraft help slow the spread of the fires in an impressive orchestration of work.
  • Helicopters scoop water out of lakes and pools, airport crews help converted passenger planes refill, and amphibious airplanes skim across water sources to negate the need for refills.
  • Business Insider recently got a personal look at how aerial crews in Washington State are combatting the flames.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Across the western US, firefighters have been busy tackling one of the worst wildfire seasons to date. The year has been unprecedented in both size — accounting for some of California’s largest ever, for example — and sheer scope, with dozens upon dozens of fires burning simultaneously.

Ground personnel are critical to turning the corner on any fire, but groundwork alone often isn’t enough to get the edge on a notoriously vicious and unpredictable enemy. That’s when the folks on the ground look up to the sky for a little help.

Enter aerial firefighting, the high-stakes game of fighting fire from on high.

If you’ve watched the evening news of late, you’ve likely seen them hard at work. Dramatic video of passenger-sized jets flying low over flaming mountain ridges to lay down bright red retardant, or dropping water seemingly just feet over the roofs of threatened houses abound.

Business Insider recently had the opportunity to get an inside look at the work those folks have been doing up in Washington State.

With wildfires burning across the western US, the ground crews often need a little help from on high to fight them. That’s where aerial firefighting comes in.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

It is just one in a system of such bases dotted throughout the western US, creating a network of coverage that leaves even some of the most remote fires little more than a 30-minute flight away.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Moses Lake has the additional distinction of being one of the few bases nationwide that can handle the very largest aerial tankers, such as the Douglas DC-10 or Boeing 747 Supertanker.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Today, though, the big jets are tasked elsewhere, leaving only two smaller Convair 580 tankers on the ramp.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

A break in the action provides a rare look inside the airplane. It’s been almost completely gutted, the original ribs and frame clearly visible.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Some supplies occupy the very rear of the plane, while crew essentials like a change of clothes are closer to the cockpit.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

This particular tanker began its life in 1953 as Convair 340 piston-engined passenger plane, flying for the likes of Braniff and Allegheny.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

It was upgraded to the turboprop 580 version, most likely in the 1960s, and converted to a fire bomber many years later.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

While the cockpit isn’t 100% original, it bears many of the same original instruments and panels as well as some modern upgrades.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

The tanker is, as noted, on the smaller side. The very largest, the Boeing 747 Supertanker, can carry 19,200 gallons.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

The Convair, though, carries closer to 2,100 gallons, released by a simple button on the yoke.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

The tour is broken up with a radio report that an Aeroflite Avro RJ-85 is inbound for a refill and a refuel.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Minutes later, the former passenger turned fire bomber jet is pulling into a parking spot on the ramp.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

The crews get to work right away.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

A team of two runs the retardant hose out to the plane, attaching it to the port and loading in some 3,000 gallons into its tanks.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

A fuel truck tops off the gas tank while pilots take a quick restroom break.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Minutes later, the pilots are completing pre-flight checks and starting the engines.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

While it might seem counter-intuitive, tankers rarely drop retardant onto the fire itself.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Today’s command plane isn’t the only one loitering in the area.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Another small plane, this one flying much lower, is likewise running circles over the edge of the fire. Nicknamed the bird dog, its crew picks up tankers arriving to the scene and leads them safely to and through the drop zone.

Typically, the bird-dog pilot triggers a small trail of white smoke, like you might see at an airshow, to show the bomber crew exactly when and where to drop the load. Like the command plane, it often stays up for hours on end, leading multiple tankers through the area until it needs to refuel or is no longer needed.

Sure enough, it isn’t long before a tanker is inbound, the same Conair Convair 580 we’d meet a few days later.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Its two-person crew circles the area with the help of the bird dog before the two dive down low together to drop a line of retardant. The two part ways quickly afterward — the bird dog circling to wait for the next bomber, the Convair headed back to Moses Lake for another load.

The most common are helicopters.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Exceptionally versatile, they can drop hundreds of gallons of water directly onto the fire with surgical precision, shuttle firefighters and equipment, or help evacuate folks injured or unable to escape.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Unlike tankers, helicopters have no need to go back to a specific base to refill. They can scoop or suction up water almost anywhere it can be found; rivers, lakes, drainage basins, even backyard swimming pools.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

They can operate with tanks, as the Bell UH-1 Huey did on the Evans Canyon fire, or with buckets, like the converted army Blackhawks did over the Sumner Grade Fire in western Washington.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

That also enables them to douse the fire far more frequently.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

While they carry a fraction of the volume of the large aircraft, helicopters may be able to squeeze 10 or more precision drops in an hour.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

A tanker, by comparison, may be limited to one or two.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

It can even grab water from the ocean if need be.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Together, these aircraft, helicopters, their crews on the ground and in the air help keep our communities safe from wildfires.

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Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren