Giant Tankers Battle Wildfires From The Sky

Jun 5, 2012
Originally published on June 5, 2012 2:05 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're still weeks away from the hottest and driest part of the year, and fire season is already well underway: Colorado, Nevada, Utah, California, Arizona, New Mexico. In a few minutes, we'll talk with a meteorologist who tries to forecast fire conditions, and we'll focus on the pilots who swoop through smoke and turbulence to drop retardant on wildfires. Two of them died in the crash of an elderly plane in Utah on Sunday.

If you've been part of air operations that fight fires, give us a call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda argues that some parts of the illegal immigration problem have solved themselves.

But first, the early fire season, and we begin in New Mexico, where a major blaze is slowly coming under control. Jerry Perry is fire information officer working on the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire. He's with the Southwest Area Type One Incident Management Team and joins us today by phone from Reserve in New Mexico. Good to have you with us.

JERRY PERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: And what are conditions like now?

PERRY: Well, the fire is at 259,020 acres. It's 20 percent contained. Our crews are steadily making progress on the fire. However, it's slow progress due to the large size of the fire and the fact that it's in some very rough country.

CONAN: Very rough country, and as I understand it in a pretty remote part of the state.

PERRY: That's correct. A good portion of the fire is in the Gila wilderness area.

CONAN: And as you continue to work on it, are any structures or any towns in danger?

PERRY: Earlier in the fire, we had a couple of communities that were evacuated. The community of Mogollon, the people there have since been allowed back into their community. There's also a community of Willow Creek, and people have been allowed back in to look at their residences and have not been allowed to stay just yet.

CONAN: So they've been allowed to go back in, get any important papers or medications or whatever they may have forgotten and go back out?

PERRY: That's correct, and that's the community where there have been some homes lost. So those folks were able to go in there and deal with some of the aftermath of that.

CONAN: I heard earlier that heavy winds were a major problem.

PERRY: Early on in this fire, we experienced some 50-mile-an-hour winds, and with that, we were subjected to a huge growth in the fire of about 20,000 acres that day. Since then, we've had winds of a lesser degree, and recently in the past four or five days, we've had more - much more manageable winds, which have allowed the crews to make some progress.

CONAN: Every fire has a story of its own. If you can project the story of this one, what's it going to be?

PERRY: Well, I think it's certainly an event that has created a very different Gila wilderness area just to its size. The fire has burned in a typically mosaic pattern, but it has made some large changes to the watersheds in that area.

CONAN: And is this unusually early for such a major fire?

PERRY: Gosh, prior to about 12 years ago, I would have said that a fire of this magnitude was unheard of, but we've been experiencing over the last 10 or 12 years some huge fires. Just across the border in Arizona last year we had one, the Wallow Fire, that was over 500,000 acres. So those are - were unusual events in the last century, seem to be more common now.

And, you know, we don't know what to expect, but it certainly is early in the fire season. We had a large one in Arizona here a couple weeks before this one, which I spent some time on, and now this one that is the largest in New Mexico's recorded history. So certainly some different circumstances than what we've dealt with in past years.

CONAN: And this is obviously straining resources.

PERRY: Certainly is. I think that everyone across the West that's in the wildland fire business is well-prepared to deal with it. Our crews are doing a good job, but if we have more large fires such as this popping up, it's going to strain resources for sure.

CONAN: Any estimate on when you can bring it fully under control?

PERRY: I wouldn't speculate on that. We are making good progress. I think at the end of today, we'll see an increase in the amount of containment, but I can't speculate as to when full containment might be achieved.

CONAN: Well, Jerry Perry, we'll let you get back to work. Thanks very much for your time.

PERRY: All right, have a nice day.

CONAN: Jerry Perry, fire information officer with the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire. He's with the Southwest Area Type One Incident Management Team stationed in the Gila National Forest. He joined us by phone from Reserve in New Mexico.

The fire there is the largest currently burning in the country. There are others, though, across the West and Southwest. A long drought cycle means conditions are ripe for more fires throughout the summer. Meteorologist Ed Delgado studies weather conditions to predict where fires might occur and how severe they might be. He joins us now from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and thanks very much for being with us.

ED DELGADO: You're welcome, glad to be here.

CONAN: And I'm sure you just heard Jerry Perry talking about 12 years ago, something like this would have been unimaginable.

DELGADO: Well, every fire season offers its own challenges, and depending on the conditions that we have as we start the season, we can get a wide range of fire activity across the country.

CONAN: And the conditions this year, does it look like it's going to be a tough year?

DELGADO: So far it hasn't turned out to be an extraordinary year. We're actually, through the end of May, are only running about half the acres that we run in a 10-year average. So we're about 54 percent of normal right now.

CONAN: So we shouldn't get too alarmed by that one major fire there?

DELGADO: No, every year we do have large fires that seem to catch a lot of attention, especially when they're the biggest fire in the country in the time, and - but we are expecting some areas that have a higher-than-normal potential for large fires this year.

CONAN: Give us some ideas of where those might be.

DELGADO: Well, it's largely driven by - it's largely in the Western areas, where we had a very low snowpack this year, generally, the Great Basin and the Southwest. We have a couple of areas of concern, one that runs from southwest Wyoming down through the four corners states into Arizona and New Mexico; and then another area that starts up in southwest Idaho, southeastern Oregon, drops into pretty much most of western Nevada, the mountains of California down into the southern mountains and foothills of Southern California.

CONAN: Those are pretty wide swaths.

DELGADO: It's a wide swath, but it's largely due to the snowpack conditions we had this year, some antecedent conditions. You know, previous couple of years, we were in a La Nina pattern that kept most of the southern half of the United States very dry. And a lot of that region hasn't recovered completely yet.

CONAN: A lot of people might not associate the quantity - quality - the quantity of snowpack with fires in the summer.

DELGADO: Well, it has a large impact. For example, if you don't get a lot of the moisture in the wintertime and get the snow melt during the spring, a lot of the larger fuels that tend to produce larger, more intense fires don't moisten up in the spring, and so they start off drier earlier in the season.

And so they become prime sources of fire, or fuel rather, later in the year and more readily - more receptive to ignition from things like lightning or human-caused starts.

CONAN: And who do you report to? Who do you send your forecast to?

DELGADO: Well, we largely brief the fire management people here at NIFC, the higher-level management. But we also have regional offices that brief in various parts of the country, and those forecasts trickle down to the actual firefighters on the ground and the people that supervise them.

So we're largely a decision support organization. So we provide any decision makers that need to have this information.

CONAN: And is this largely useful to say it looks like we're going to need extra resources this year in western Nevada, say, or southwestern Texas?

DELGADO: That's part of it. Part of what we do is to identify the areas that are most at risk, and that allows the decision makers to make the kinds of decisions regarding numbers of resources that are required, how they're going to be distributed, prioritizing what regions of the country will get which resources and things like that.

CONAN: And as you make these forecasts, it's - it's a little strange. It's like forecasting disasters.

DELGADO: I'm sorry, I lost that last part of the question.

CONAN: It's a little like forecasting disasters, isn't it?

DELGADO: Essentially, and we're not forecasting actual fires as far - as much as we are forecasting the areas that are going to be most prone to significant fire. We're going to get fire across the west anyway, but what we're trying to do is identify those areas where the fire activity is going to be much above normal and of an extreme nature that's going to require a lot of attention.

CONAN: And what's the most difficult part of the job?

DELGADO: All of it.

(LAUGHTER)

DELGADO: You know, the unknown obviously is identifying areas where we're going to have a large number of human-caused fires because we can't forecast the kinds of activity that would lead to that. However, we also try to identify areas that are at risk from lightning, natural-caused fires and where conditions would normally - that normally would not - areas that would not normally support a lot of large fire are at such a state where large fires and extreme fires are more likely to occur.

CONAN: And you talked about forecasting over wide swaths. Do the forecasts become more specific?

DELGADO: As we drop down to the regional levels, they do become a little bit more specific, but there's still a lot of a big-picture look at things. We try to identify fuel conditions and how those are going to be affected by the weather conditions over the next several days to several months. And so we try to take a bigger-picture look in the longer term, and obviously the farther out in time you go, the less precise you can be and the less accurate you're going to be.

But we take a big-picture view, and then as we get closer to those time frames when we typically expect fire to increase, then we start focusing on more of the details.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your time today, interesting, appreciate it.

DELGADO: You're welcome.

CONAN: Ed Delgado, National Predictive Services meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center. He joined us by phone from Boise. We're talking about the wildfires across the West and Southwest, and when we come back, we're going to talk about the crash of an aerial tanker that killed two pilots over the weekend. We'll talk with a pilot who fights fires in a moment.

If you've been part of air operations that fight wild-land fires, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. If you tuned in to hear a show about unions, we apologize; we've rescheduled that for later this week. We're talking about wildfires, and federal investigators are expected along the Utah-Nevada border today after an aerial tanker fighting a wildfire crashed into a canyon and disintegrated.

Captain Todd Neal Tompkins and First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless, both of Boise, died in that crash. Their plane, a P2V, was owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Montana. We'll talk with that company's president and an air tanker pilot himself in just a moment.

If you've been part of air operations that fight fires, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Dan Snyder is president of Neptune Aviation Services and joins us now from the air tanker base in Cedar City, Utah. Our condolences, and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today.

DAN SNYDER: Well, thank you for inviting me, and I appreciate those condolences.

CONAN: I assume you knew the pilot.

SNYDER: Yes, I knew him very well. Neptune is definitely a family, and we know our personnel very well, not just partly due to the mission but also because of the lifestyle that it requires when you're actually on contract. So we're a very tight-knit community.

CONAN: And do we know what happened yet?

SNYDER: No, at this point we don't know. There is an investigating team that is heading out to the crash site today, but beyond that we don't have any idea what occurred.

CONAN: Can you give us an idea of what they were doing?

SNYDER: They were on what's called a retardant drop, operating in conjunction with the ground firefighters on the ground and putting retardant in a vicinity that they were trying to prevent the fire from moving through. This was their second mission of the day. There were other air tankers in the area, our aircraft as well, and for whatever reason, on the last run, this last run they crashed on, they just didn't make it through.

CONAN: And that lifestyle you were talking about, give us an idea of what's involved in that.

SNYDER: Well, it's obviously very seasonal work. We only work during the fire season, and the fire seasons, as you can imagine, are changing over the years. But we go on contract with the United States Forest Service based upon their needs, and that contract length can be either 180 days, 160 days, 140 or 150-day contracts. And that's actually days of availability. That's working six days in seven.

So a flight crew will pack their bags, get onboard an airplane from Missoula, and take it to the location that an agency's asked for, the air tanker, and they sit there. Either they fly on the fires, or they'll stand on standby at the tanker base. Every night they take their bags off the airplane, go check into a hotel, spend the evening there, check out of that same hotel, take the bags, put them back on the airplane and either fight fire or again wait to be called out.

They don't know where they're going to be every night. They could be dispatched to a fire, drop on a fire and then have a dispatch to a new tanker base in a new state to fight a new fire. So it's very much a nomadic lifestyle, at least while you're on contract, and like I said, the guys get to know each other very well.

Our maintenance crews, they have a truck and trailer that support the aircraft, and so as that aircraft is moved from tanker base to tanker base, that crew then chases the airplane. So our maintenance guys and flight personnel have a very good, close relationship, and as you can imagine, so do our flight personnel and the maintenance personnel with themselves.

CONAN: So as you say, a very tight-knit community, and people who I would guess have worked together for a long time.

SNYDER: It is. It's an industry that typically once you get in it, you stay in it, and we have a lot of people that will move between the agencies, between the Forest Service or Interior or BLM and then with private companies and then sometimes back again. So you work with people that you've known for years, and again, like I said, an accident like this and fatalities just really hits home for not just Neptune but for the firefighting community at large.

CONAN: We're talking with Dan Snyder, president of Neptune Aviation Services and an air tanker pilot himself. As he mentioned, two of his pilots were killed on Sunday in the crash of their plane. We'd like to talk with others involved in the aerial firefighting operations, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. James is on the line, James with us from Rochester, Minnesota.

JAMES: Hi, Mr. Snyder, I'm very sorry to hear about Todd. I actually grew up across the street from Todd on Mercer Island, known him since he was a very little boy, actually. And I just want to say he was a great guy, and he was an awesome skier, I'm sure a really good pilot, and he'll be very much missed.

SNYDER: I appreciate that very much, and he's definitely going to be missed on our end as well.

JAMES: I just had - the other comment I had, I'm just concerned that the only planes available are, you know, well over 50 years old, or at least to a very substantial extent. And without necessarily saying anything about Neptune Aviation or anything like that, but I'm just - what's your take on the need for upgrading our capabilities in that regard?

SNYDER: Well, I can speak specifically to Neptune. You know, the agencies will have to talk to their needs, but we've recognized the need to replace the P2s for several different reasons. Number one, they do have a finite life from a structural health standpoint, so many cycles, and we've known that those aircraft need to be retired.

And then secondly, the aircraft, as any airplane, you have to support it with parts and engines and so forth, and that's something we've seen is we need to start retiring them. So just as an airline retires an airline - or an airliner for similar reasons, we're doing the same thing. And as a matter of fact, the BAE146 is the airframe that we've selected for now to replace the P2s.

We have one of those on contract now, and hopefully we'll be taking two more very shortly.

JAMES: Well, Mr. Snyder, again, I'm very sorry to hear about Todd. You know, I haven't seen him for many years, but I do know he was a great guy, and thanks for your comments, your insightful comments about the industry itself.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. And just to follow up on what he was asking you about, this is a tweet from Tom Robinson(ph). He says: The USFS, that's the U.S. Forest Service, continues to use antique air tankers and refuses to allow the three best air tankers in the world to compete for contracts.

SNYDER: Yeah, you know, again, I don't have a whole lot of comments about what the Forest Service is doing or not doing. I only can really speak to what Neptune is trying to do to answer some of the shortcomings we see in the fleet and try to help be part of that solution.

CONAN: You spoke about just as an airline would retire airliners, well, the airliners that are the contemporaries of the P2, what, the DC-8?

SNYDER: Yeah, DC-8s - definitely in that vintage. Part of the problem, you have to realize, is any aircraft cannot become an air tanker. You have to have specific characteristics. An aircraft needs to be able to carry a pretty significant load. In our case, we're carrying roughly 2,000 gallons of retardant at approximately nine pounds a gallon. So you're 18 to 20 thousand pounds that you need to be able to carry. And that's part of - that's the easy part, in essence.

You also need to be able to fit a tank in the aircraft. The easiest aircraft to do that with is one that has a weapons bay or a bomb bay. You can bolt a tank in there and carry the retardant. So obviously there's not a lot of those aircraft available out there anymore to be able to do that.

CONAN: A lot were World War II surplus.

SNYDER: Again, correct, a lot of them were World War II surplus, and that's what we're dealing with. You know, P2s were not World War II. They were retired in the 1970s. So they were an aircraft that was around for a very, very long time as a model, not necessarily the specific airframes but the model was around for a long time.

So you're dealing with the stresses and strains of the fire environment (unintelligible) aircraft and actually can handle those stresses, an aircraft that can slow down and fly the speeds in the type of terrain that you're dealing with the fire.

So taking, you know, a 747 and DC-10s are very applicable airplanes in some environments, and they don't work well in others, and so what we've looked at is from a company standpoint is an airframe that will still fit the mission but will have modern thought processes both in design and in crew resource.

CONAN: And if you could pick any plane in the world, what would it be?

SNYDER: Well, that's a complex question and one I really can't answer, because if you could pick any one, I'd build my own. You'd build your special-purpose airplane.

CONAN: That's a little expensive.

SNYDER: Yes, it is.

CONAN: Of the models available, what would you pick?

SNYDER: Well, you know, Neptune has looked at a lot of different ones. We've looked at airliners, we've looked at military airplanes, and we ultimately settled on the BAE-146 for its ability to fly high and fast but yet has the ability to slow down. It has the ability to carry 3,000 gallons of retardant, which is the target.

It has the ability to be supported by the manufacturer; the manufacturer supports the idea of being an air tanker. So it kind of hits all the high points of what we've been looking at. And it's not something that you just wake up one morning and say we're going to build an air tanker. It's a long process.

And so we've been looking at it for quite some time.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about the operations themselves. These are not easy missions.

SNYDER: No, they're not. At face value you're basically doing standard airmen ideas down (unintelligible) level. But that's, of course, an oversimplified explanation of it. You're taking an airframe, an airplane, retardant into an area where visibility can be reduced. Turbulence can be fairly significant. The temperatures are relatively high. It's an area where rising terrain, you'll be flying below terrain at times. You have to make sure you're putting the retardant right where it's requested, either for the actual purpose of helping to fight the fire, to keep it away from ground personnel, water sources, structures and so forth.

So there's a lot of things that you're keeping in mind as you're operating, unlike an airline operation, where an airliner is only close to the ground twice - during takeoff and landing. We're close to the ground pretty much the entire mission.

CONAN: And the fire itself causes some of this turbulence, and obviously, the smoke obscures your vision.

SNYDER: Absolutely. Fires create their own weather systems a lot of time. And if the visibility does drop down below an acceptable level, the airplanes will definitely depart the area, wait for the winds to shift, try a second run at it. But there's a lot of safety protocols in place. The agencies have been doing this for a while. We have a lot of different tools that are used in the fire environment. So it's a risk. It's definitely a risk, but it's not an unplanned risk and a risk where we try to put mitigations where we can.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Cameron. Cameron with us from Twisp, Washington.

CAMERON: Hi. My name is Cam. I was one of the first female helitack firefighters. That's different from smokejumpers who jump out of planes. We would be on a helicopter, and we would just land in a remote area that wasn't accessible, and then just be dropped off and fight fires from there. And I did love fighting fires, and I'd love the camaraderie, but it was extremely difficult as a female in that environment. And I felt, from my perspective, that it was such a male bastion that there was this sort of proving ground, and there were a lot of unnecessary risks taken.

And most of the firefighters are young, and they want to prove, you know, they wanted to prove they're men, and they would go into situations which is why, I think, situations like Storm King happened where people went in and they were killed. I mean, they were burned alive. And we were told to - and I'm not saying something negative about the Forest Service. I think they do a good job, and they try to do a good job. But it's just sort of a theory or a way of living where unnecessary risks are taken to protect homes or areas that - really based on the topography and the wind patterns and everything - we couldn't really adequately fight the fire without being in a lot of danger to ourselves and...

CONAN: And, Cam, just to clarify, you're talking about firefighters ferried in by helicopter and...

CAMERON: Yeah. We were just dropped in by helicopter...

CONAN: I understand.

CAMERON: ...with all of our gear and just stay there.

CONAN: An important and interesting work but not aerial firefighting per se.

CAMERON: Well, no, it wasn't - we would deal with, you know, there were people dropping water sometimes. We'd be telling them exactly where to drop water or retardant with communication back and forth. But, you know, I wasn't in the helicopter, but the people on the ground are working with the people that are up in the air too, you know, telling them just...

CONAN: Sure. No, I understand, yeah.

CAMERON: ...where. So it's kind of a joint effort. And I just think in terms of what's going on, on the ground and the risks for the people who are on the ground working with the people in the air that we had excellent training in terms of how to deal with a helicopter, and I felt that the pilots were really good at what they were doing. But I didn't feel that the risks were, you know, I felt sometimes they were too risky (unintelligible).

CONAN: I get it. Cameron, thanks very much for the phone call.

CAMERON: Thank you.

CONAN: And again, just to clarify, she's talking about decisions made by the Forest Service and not by the aviators. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Robert. Robert with us from Albuquerque.

ROBERT: Hello. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air, Robert. Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: Yeah. I was a fire captain with California for 33 years, and I want to give my condolences to the pilots that have - that crashed. And aspect is I've witnessed airdrops numerous times, and I believe that the air program is overused once a fire reaches a certain size. They just, kind of, are pissing in the wind and not - I'm not saying they don't need them for structure protection. But as far as drops, a lot of them I've seen when a fire reaches a certain size, it's wind driven, smoke driven, and it doesn't really - they're not effective.

CONAN: So that's your experience. Let me just ask Dan Snyder. Those decisions to drop and where to drop those are not made by you or your pilots. Those are - that's the Forest Service, correct?

SNYDER: Typically, that's correct. The only time it's really made by the crew on scene is during initial attack, and that's typically when you're dealing with smaller fires, when the airframes - the aircraft is the first to show on the scene. Once additional resources show on the scene, then the air tanker takes a supporting role, puts retardant where it's requested by either ground personnel or the air attack supervisor who's flying overhead. And like I said, in that case, would become a supervising role.

And there's two types of ways to fight fire from the air as well, and we're talking fixed wing. There's retardant, which its name implies, it's actually a retardant. It doesn't extinguish the flames. And then there's water, actually putting direct attack on the flames itself. But Neptune deals strictly with retardant operations.

CONAN: And helicopters are also used to drop water directly on hot spots, so that's another approach.

SNYDER: And they also drop retardant as well.

CONAN: Yes.

SNYDER: The large helicopters will drop retardant.

CONAN: Has there been a time when you said to a supervisor, wait a minute, I don't think there's much point to this, or has there been a time where you say this is too risky?

SNYDER: We make all of our decisions not to fly based on risk. If we figure the weather is beyond the limits of where we want to operate the aircraft, if we feel that the turbulence is too rough, if we feel that the approach to the fire is not going to be safe, if the exit is not good enough for us to leave the drop area, we'll definitely decline a drop, absolutely. And we never get any pushback. The agency - whatever agency it happens to be - Forest Service, which, of course, is our contract provider - we don't get pushback for making decisions for safety.

CONAN: Let's see if we can squeeze one more caller in. This is Walt from Chico, California. Walt, I'm afraid we just have about 30 seconds left.

WALT: OK. The first thing I'd like to do is condolences to the Neptune family for the loss of Todd and Edwin, and also to congratulate Neptune for the work they're doing on developing the 146 and next-generation aircraft. One of the problems that we're having now, is getting - I believe, is getting support from the Forest Service through timely decision-making, coming out with contracts in time and for contracts that are long enough to allow the companies to work with the banks and the financing to develop the new, more expensive aircraft that we're going to be needing in the future.

CONAN: Walt, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate the phone call. Sorry, we didn't have more time for you.

WALT: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Dan Snyder, again, our condolences as well in the loss of your two pilots.

SNYDER: Thank you, Neal. I appreciate you inviting us on, and I just want to say that we've gotten support from many different folks, and we're very grateful for that, and thanks for inviting us.

CONAN: Dan Snyder, president of Neptune Aviation Services. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.