Firefighting from the sky comes with unique risks

By  | 

RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - It's a tricky profession with a lot on the line.

A helicopter drops water near Hot Springs while fighting the Vineyard Fire in 2018.

If we get more than one or two aircraft in the area we are actually going to call in an air attack platform,” said Raymond Bubb, firefighter and state fire aviation officer. “We try to keep safety as number one.”

The challenges of flying an airplane or helicopter loaded water, retardant or people into a firestorm are unique.

“These aircraft are often flying in mountainous terrain and that's always dangerous,” Bubb said. “There is always circulating air currents and things caused by the terrain itself which makes it a dangerous process. When we are talking about heavy air tankers, they're within 200 feet of the ground.

However, air units are best suited for attacking fires in hard to reach places.

“In a situation where there is a standalone home in a very heavily vegetated area with one way in and one way out that we wouldn't want to put firefighters in, we might coat the fuels around the structure or the structure itself and then walk away and hopefully suppress the fire long enough that we can get back in there before the structure is really totally taken out by fire,” Bubb said.

Even with the best crews on and off the ground, crashes can happen. In 2012, a C-130 crashed near Edgemont fighting the White Draw Fire. Strong winds (technically a microburst) were blamed for the crash and killed four of the six people on board.

On Thursday, a C-130 crashed in Australia killing three American firefighters. They were in the country with a private company helping to fight the bush fires in New South Wales. The investigation into that crash is ongoing.