Firefighters In The Sky


Flying above the Sierra Ancha Wilderness, Steve Bliss plots his next move in the Forest Service's fight against the Coon Creek fire.

Currently at 9,259 acres, the fire that started April 26 in territory described as rugged, remote and forbidding has been constantly measured and monitored by aircrews.

During the fire, there have been as many as 10 planes and helicopters over the fire at a time. As one of two air attack supervisors, it is Bliss' job to safely direct each of the pilots across the smoke-filled skies. And it's pilot Bob Alexander's job to shuttle Bliss safely around the fire in his Cessna 340.

The pair came to this fire the day after it was reported, and they've flown more than 11,000 miles in 70 hours.

"And most of that is in an 11-mile radius," Alexander said. "It was just 900 miles (Monday)."

A veteran pilot, Alexander has been flying over fires since the 1970s. He owns and operates the Whiskey Creek Airport in Silver City, N.M. and has more than 50 years of piloting experience.

Experience is key in these situations. The average age of the pilots on the Coon Creek fire is 50, Alexander said.

"You don't see too many young people flying," he said. "It takes quite a while to get a left seat."

Pilots must have a minimum of 1,500 hours in large planes to fly the air tankers. They fly at low levels, sitting on top of 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of retardant and they don't have much room for error.

Adding another level of excitement to an already dangerous task, fire creates its own weather, Alexander said. Heat rising from uneven terrain bounces the planes around like a bus with no shocks on an old dirt road.

"You don't dare fly through a smoke column," Bliss said. "It could turn you upside down."

To make sure they stay sharp, the pair work a four-hour shift, 30 minutes flying to the fire, three hours at the fire and 30 minutes back.

They alternate with another air attack supervisor and pilot to make sure the crew on the fire is always fresh. After the four-hour shift, the men park the plane at Payson Municipal Airport, grab some grub, run errands and take off again three hours later. This keeps the fire covered at least 12 hours a day.

Alexander likened the fire and its support teams to a military operation, each section needing to dovetail into the others. The air operation is just one facet of a large wildland firefighting operation.

During his shift Bliss will direct the air tankers to drop retardant in specific locations scouted out by reconnaissance helicopters. He will direct other helicopters to drop their 500 to 2,000 gallons of water. And he'll direct other helicopters to drop supplies off to the foot crews working in remote canyons.

Firefighters have managed to contain 50 percent of the fire and hold it, but the steep, rugged terrain makes for slow going.

"The terrain is remarkable (on this fire)," Bliss said. The fire burned right up to the doorsteps of the Indian cliff dwellings tucked in the protective grip of the craggy Sierra Anchas.

"This is one of the most exciting jobs anyone could ever have," Bliss said. "It keeps me connected with the pulse of the fire."

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