Helicopters of various sizes and shapes sit ready at the Mineral County Airport near Superior. Six have been called in to-date to help fight the Sunrise and Burdette fires burning east of Superior. With a moment’s notice any one of them will spring into action and make the trek to the fires.
The fires are burning in steep, forested terrain and along the ridgelines, threatening around 100 homes in the surrounding area.
The helicopters are called in to drop thousands of gallons of water onto the fire lines, working with Hotshot and hand crews located far below along roads and trails. The crews try desperately to keep the nearly 10,000-acre Sunrise Fire and 600-acre Burdette fire in check.
The helicopters, or “ships” as the crew calls them, sit in a row like race cars. Each has its own team of mechanics, a manager and a pilot. Each team hangs around their own trailer, washing and maintaining the ships until they get the call to take to the air.
A small two-blade orange and white Bell Helicopter sits near the entrance. Behind it, another orange, white and black two-blade Bell Iroquois. Next to that, a four-blade red, white and blue Firehawk, and the granddaddy of them all sitting on the tarmac last Wednesday was a blue and white Sikorsky S-61L, a civil variant of the Sea King Helicopter.
On that day, two other “ships” were in the air, fighting the blaze. Each are equipped to carry an orange “Bambi Bucket.” The buckets can either be dipped into a river or lake, or some have a pump and can filled in as little as 12 inches of water, said Steve Burns, who supervises the field. He and his crew are from Arizona, and had just finished up a fire season there.
The smaller helicopters carry around 500 gallon buckets and the Sikorsky S-61L around 700 gallons. Some ships can carry upwards of 2,600 gallons. The amount of water carried depends on a number of factors, including how much fuel is left in the helicopter and altitude.
Peter Neilly, the pilot of the Sikorsky S-61L, said his ship can carry 660 gallons of fuel and that will last him three and a half hours. However, on fires like the one at Sunrise, he will carry less fuel and more water. He also said that it doesn’t perform as well with altitudes over 5,000 feet. The giant ship can hold 18 seats but for the fires it’s restricted and only the pilots are allowed onboard.
His bucket carried 700 gallons of water and the power fill takes about 45 seconds and dipping into the river, only a matter of seconds. The Sikorsky S-61L is a widely used airliner and for oil rig support and has a top speed of 116 mph. He works for Coulson Aviation out of British Columbia, Canada. It’s a privately owned company and they have a contract with the forest service. In addition to fire suppression, their fleets also work in logging, power-line construction, airliner passenger transport and other industrial heavy lift operations.
Another impression ship on stand-by was a red, white and blue Sikorsky, four-blade Firehawk. Kenny, the pilot for the machine, is from Pensacola, Florida. He said it had previously been owned by the Sultan of Brunei, a man worth $20 billion. The family had 17 Black Hawk helicopters in their vast collection of cars and aircrafts. The helicopter had been painted green, with green shag carpet, with gold plated door handles. There were even pink Lazy Boy recliners installed in the back for the family’s comfort.
Now all that remain of its previous life are the gold door handles. The chairs and carpet have all been removed and the bowel of the craft remains empty except for a seat that the mechanic sits on when moving from place to place.
It carries 360 gallons of jet fuel which sustains the craft for two hours. A nearby tanker truck has eight hours of fuel and is required to have that much on-hand at all times. The fuel comes from the Missoula airport. The pilots are limited to eight hour days and if their air-time is up or conditions don’t allow them to fly they are grounded at the airport.
“There are mechanical things we need to do, plus wash it. Otherwise, we may watch a movie, or play video games,” he said. The pilots usually stay near their ships and don’t venture too far away. Neilly said he’s been flying with Coulson for 13 years and in the winter he goes to Australia. The helicopter is put on a ship and sent down under. He then fights fires there in the winter and then in the U.S. and Canada in the summers and usually gets the months of May and June off.
He said the conditions in Australia are different than those here.
“Temperatures can reach 115 degrees with winds up to 30 to 40 mph, plus relative humidity that’s unreadable,” he said. “It can become catastrophic; there’s some real bad fires there.”
The smaller Bell Helicopter is not restricted and can carry more than just the pilots. This one is used to pick up firefighters who maybe injured or if personnel need to fly over the fire and get surveillance. The other ships are restricted. Also, some belong to the forest service, and others are private contractors. Whether private or government owned, all the pilots agree that they will be there for several more weeks before the fires are under control.