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Smaller planes help contain wildfires before they grow



STEVE KADEL - Crook County Commissioner Ken Fahlgren talks with mechanic Sean Dougherty about the air tanker's capabilities.

Crook County has new weapons in its fight against wildfire.

Two single-engine air tankers are being stationed at Prineville-Crook County Airport for the summer. They’re smaller than traditional air tankers that drop fire retardant, which means they can fly into narrow canyons and other areas where the bigger planes can’t go.

The small tankers are designed for a fast initial assault against fire to keep it from spreading. Pilot Todd Landry said the nimble planes are valuable for protecting homes as well as wilderness.

“You can put out one tree,” he said. “We can also put lines around a house real quickly. Being a smaller airplane, we can get into some tight places.”

“Because of their maneuverability and their response time, they are very effective,” said George Ponte, Crook County district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, which is paying a private company to provide the planes throughout the 2015 fire season.

Doug Hodges, who pilots one of the single-engine tankers, gave a demonstration of the craft’s ability last Thursday at the airport for media, government officials and other interested people. From about 85 feet above ground, Hodges released reddish orange retardant that looked like the usual substance, but actually is an upgraded product.

It is lighter than traditional retardant and costs less. A new technology makes the retardant environmentally friendly and long-lasting. It’s a mixture of gel and water that can keep trees or grass wet for up to 10 hours.

“You’re creating a layer of water to protect the structure or vegetation,” explained Matt Struzziero of Florida-based Gel Tech Solutions, which markets the product. “You’re making water last longer.”

The Prineville-based planes have already proved their value this summer. They responded to a fire start in the Happy Ridge area south of Dufer on June 29, making three drops per plane.

That kept the fire from growing while firefighters on the ground established a line around the blaze.

"The new retardant FireIce was very effective in slowing the spread of the fire, giving ground crews time to work," said David Jacobs, of the Department of Forestry's unit in The Dalles.

Kristin Dodd, of the U.S. Forest Service, said her agency has high hopes for the upgraded retardant.

“We’re optimistic it’s a product we can use in coming years,” she said. “(These planes) allow us to box in a fire and keep it small.”

The single-engine planes are part of the Department of Forestry’s arsenal for fighting wildland fires. Statewide, the agency has five of the small retardant-dropping planes available, plus two detection planes, a large air tanker and eight helicopters. The fleet can be dispatched throughout the region when a fire breaks out and may aid a variety of state and federal agencies.

The small planes hold less retardant than the bigger planes do. However, they can reload and be back in the air in 10 minutes – an important factor in stopping a fire before it grows.

Crook County Commissioners Ken Fahlgren and Seth Crawford were on hand for last week’s demonstration at the airport. Both men said they welcome the addition of the single-engine planes in Prineville.

“This is a way to protect houses,” Fahlgren said. “I’m thrilled to have this available.”

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