February 16, 2001
I was on a fire outside Boise, by the hamlet of Atlanta. Lightning struck a mountaintop 6 miles from the town last Sunday, 10 days ago. It smouldered for two days then ignited the nearest tree. The forest there is tree thick and very dry with lots of dead wood on the ground for fuel so it burned.
The next day the fire size was 200 acres. The following morning we were called in to help fight it. That day the fire went to 1000 acres, burning hot but still confining itself to the mountainside. The next day the wind picked up, along with the air temperature, and the baby nuked out. A triple nuke-out. Three hot areas of the fire exploded into self-feeding fire storms. They made mushroom clouds that rose to 30,000 feet, measured by airliners. We could see limbs of igniting trees catapulting into the air and zooming out of sight into the fire cloud.
It was awesome. They pulled all the people off the fireline and we stood back and watched. Actually we were flying around at the base of the nuke-out underneath the leaning cloud chasing spotfires a quarter-mile in front of the advancing firestorm. Little embers were bouncing off the windshield, the same things that were igniting the spot fires. It was exciting. The columns of smoke had caves of clear air within themselves, plenty big enough to fly around in. There was no sunlight in them. Nighttime, but lit up with red light from the flames.
Totally awesome. That afternoon the fire moved to within a half-mile of Atlanta. A wall of flames 100 feet high and a half-mile wide bearing down on the town and six helicopters and some retardant bombers the only thing in the way. Then the wind shifted and the flames started burning in on themselves. The advance halted and the nuke-out sat there and eventually consumed itself. The fried mountainside behind it looked like a moonscape.
Then two days later the fire nuked out again, all of a sudden, and the flames were at the town. They called for all helicopters, priority —structure protection. We were dropping water in the front yards of houses. The fire cloud leaned over town and embers dropped out of it and ignited spot fires on the other side of town. We were fighting fire in front of and behind us. That was real exciting. They wanted to bring in retardant bombers, drop right on the town, and they wanted the helicopters to get out of the way. But the air boss said, “No way, the helicopters are saving the town!” and we kept at it. And you know what? We did it. One shack burned is all. That day was REAL exciting. And I had a camera but was out of film.
I’m now on a new fire in McCall, ID. Working a little extra because we’re short-handed.
Date: Wed, 07 Mar 2001
From: Mac Miller
To: Elizabeth Miller
Subject: Air attack
When you fly on a forest fire you aren’t out there just winging it, blasting away with your water bucket on any flamey thing you see. You have structure and rules present that try to insure the aircraft on the fire are being used effectively and safely. Up above the fire, above everybody, being flown around in a fast, radio-packed airplane, is a person called Air Attack. Air Attack is in charge of the flying part of the fire. Air Attack keeps track of the location of every aircraft on the fire and what those aircraft are doing. Air Attack knows who the fire crews on the ground are and what their tactical situation is. Air attack zooms around the fire watching how the fire is behaving. Air Attack rules.
Air Attack is usually an easy person to work with. They are in charge, no doubt, but fire fighting is a team effort kind of thing. No one person can put the fire out. Everyone tries to work together. But sometimes you get an Air Attack who sees things differently.
We were on a stubborn forest fire in the Idaho mountains. The burning terrain was rugged and one side of the fire was isolated from roads. It was decided to fight that side of the fire with aircraft. Unfortunately that side was also at 8200 feet elevation and in the thin air our big honker helicopter struggled to pick up a third its normal load, lifting maybe 300 gallons. This meant that we had to dip our 900 gallon water bucket in our little handy mountain lake with highly experienced total-ass guess precision, hoping that when we pulled the bucket out of the water it was 1/3 full. One/third full plus another 1/10th and we couldn’t lift the weight out of the lake. Engines running full blast, no more power, no more go. One/third full minus 1/10th and we were ashamed at the whimpy weight showing on our on-board load scale as we’d rocket vertically out of our lake. So we tried to get 1/3. Plus the mountain winds were giving us the dreaded tidy bowl effect, swirling invisibly around the lake perimeter and fighting our every effort to keep our nose into the wind for maximum lift as we worked to climb out toward the fire. This went on for hours. For something that is supposed to be play this was bordering on work. And then Air Attack called down on the radio.
“664, you’re going to have to do better getting out of that lake.”
We looked up (there are two pilots in our helicopter) and saw Air Attack circling 800 feet above us. We thought he was pulling our leg so we played along. “You think this is bad? You should have seen the last load.”
“You’ll have to use better flying technique. You’re taking too long and wasting flight time (i.e. money).”
Airplane flying and helicopter flying have nothing in common other than the air part. This guy didn’t have a clue what we were dealing with but he was sure he did. I instantly wanted to key the mike and tell him if he thought he could do better…blah blah blah…but I didn’t. Just silence.
After we did a few more bucket drops on the fire Air Attack called down again. “664, you move down to the other side of the fire. We’re bringing retardant in here and it’s too smokey to have you around.” The other side of the fire was bordered by roads and it was pretty well under control by the ground guys in their fire trucks. Adding a big helicopter to the effort there was a low priority. Plus it was even more smokey there than on this high-mountain side of the fire. But it wasn’t safe to be dropping water on the high mountain side while the big retardant-dropping bomber airplanes were diving into the area as well. Air Attack was correct in moving us, but we (and he) needed to know pretty precisely our new whereabouts since the visibility was marginal and mid-air collisions were a real danger. So we asked Air Attack where exactly we should go. He should have already told us this, he was not following a fundamental safety proceedure, so we were basically calling him on his transgression and leaving off the “dumb ass” when we addressed him.
“Just go down to the lower road and you’ll be out of the way.” He left off “dumb ass” as well.
So we went to the other side of the fire and found someone on the ground to work with. We told Air Attack where we were and he answered, “Roger, 664”, hardly breaking his radio chatter with the retardant bombers as he directed their drops on the mountain side of the fire. We continued to work down by the road with our ground contact.
We struggled. The smoke was thin and visibility okay outside the fire line but near the fire the smoke was thick. Our ground contact would direct us in to a flame he wanted doused but the drifting smoke would rise between us and the target, blocking our view. We wanted to be sure of the target area because we didn’t want to accidently hit our ground man with several thousand pounds of water. We dropped four buckets of water in the next half hour. The bombers finished. Air Attack called down to us. “664, we want to make a low pass down the right flank of the fire. Are you in that area?”
“No” , we answered, “we’re down the road about a mile from that , working where the backfire is. We’re low, 300 feet AGL.”
“Roger, we’re coming down the right corner of the fire on a recon. We’ll be well clear.” As we hovered between patches of smoke looking for the target for our bucket load a twin-engined airplane flew by at 150 knots, eye level and 100 yards away . It was Air Attack. He had flown through the middle of the fire, not around the right flank of it, and he was right at our stated altitude. I said to the other pilot. “Hey, look at that.” He looked up from his flying duties and stared. Air Attack banked slightly and disappeared down the road in the haze. “He didn’t see us.” We looked at each other a bit. “Let’s not tell him.”
And we never did.
nuke-out: when a hot wildfire heats large areas of nearby vegetation to a volatile temperature and spontaneous ignition of the vegetation follows.
The process rapidly becomes self-replicating. The rising super-heated air above the nuke-out reaches 20,000 feet. The normal atmosphere above is pushed even higher. A towering mushroom-shaped cloud of water vapor forms (i.e. a real cloud), sometimes with its own lightning and rain. Nuke-out flames can reach above 200 feet. A 700 gallon shot of water dumped on a nuke-out fire from a helicopter water bucket turns to steam before it reaches the burning vegetation. At ground level havoc rules. Wind from the inrushing oxygen feeding the flames can blow you over. The flame front can move for spurts at highway speeds. Everything is consumed by the heat. Charcoal tree snags and grey sterile soil are left behind.
Nuke-outs are awesome. The ultimate fire.