The job of Air Tactical Group Supervisor in the firefighting world is somewhat like a traffic policeman at a busy intersection. In Orofino on Thursday, the Air Tactical Group Supervisor, James Grasham, Zone Assistant Fire Management Officer from Idaho Panhandle National Forest stationed in Grangeville, with pilot Dave Parker coordinated the air support on the Brown Road Fire which greatly assisted in putting that fire out. Air support working the fire in Orofino, included 4 helicopters, 4 single engine air tankers (SEATS), 2 heavy air tankers, and a lead plane. With 11 aircraft over the fire, one could imagine the chaos that could ensue, hence the need for someone to coordinate the effort.
Due to effective regional communication and local pre-positioned air resources, aerial attack was immediate for the Brown Road fire. The terrain in that area makes on the ground firefighting difficult, and the aerial attack allowed the local firefighters to respond directly to the homes for structure protection. Circling above the fire, Grasham, is able to talk with firefighters on the ground as well as the air craft supporting the fire. In coordination with the ground Incident Commander, the Air Tactical Group Supervisor sets objectives for the fire and directs each retardant or water drop on the fire.
In Orofino last week, the helicopters were able to dip from nearby ponds and cool hot spots while the SEATs returned to Grangeville Tanker Base where they reloaded with retardant. The heavy air tankers were flown in from Missoula to assist with the Braun Road fire also. The “heavy” tankers are larger planes that may carry up to 2,000 gallons of retardant and also require a lead plane. The lead plane identifies the line in which the air tanker will drop their retardant load. While identifying that line the lead plane leads the tankers in and “checks the air”. These larger planes returned to Missoula to be refilled and one of them returned with another load to Orofino.
The SEATs hold up to 800 gallons of retardant per load; however, for safety reasons each load is usually only 725-750 gallons. The SEAT pilot can control the amount or coverage of retardant on each drop. If the fuel on the ground is heavy timber the pilot will likely release their complete load to ensure that it will reach the ground and coverage is good. The pilots stationed in Grangeville are highly qualified for wildfire and each year attend training and are recertified to continue to pilot SEATs.
When the SEATs get to the Grangeville Air Base, support personnel on the ground manage the safety of the “ramp”, the site of the retardant reloading station. SEAT managers keep track of flying time, safety, roll times loading and compliance with contract standards. There are at least 5 interagency dispatched personnel at the base that assist with the tanker base. As fire activity increase in the area, the more aircraft are called in and in turn more support personnel will arrive to help manage the Tanker Base.
The Idaho Department of Lands and the US Forest Service work closely together and share use of the SEATs. The Idaho Department of Lands holds the contract with the SEAT companies while the US Forest Service provides the airport support and staffing to maintain the Grangeville Tanker Base. This mutual aid agreement allows both entities use of this valuable firefighting resource without carrying the financial burden alone. The SEATs usefulness and efficiency of all personnel involved was exhibited on the Brown Fire and the air show over Orofino was entertaining as well.