Black Hills Civil Air Patrol adds fire spotting to duties
Associated Press Writer
RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Dry conditions and a dry forecast make
for conditions that could spark a lot of fires again in the
tinder-dry Black Hills National Forest, but much of the
firefighting effort going into the season is to keep the fires
Joe Lowe, head of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire
Suppression, said the number of fires in the forest in southwest
South Dakota and northeast Wyoming hasn't really fallen over the
past several years, but fewer have turned into major infernos
because of an aggressive response.
"We've had the same number of fires. We've just been very
successful in our initial attack efforts," he said. "We hit them
hard and keep them small."
When a fire is spotted, fire engines and crews are dispatched
immediately, as is an air tanker that can snuff out the flames,
when the fire risk is high.
Much of the credit for keeping fires small goes to the local
Civil Air Patrol, Lowe said.
The volunteer CAP pilots, known best for finding missing or lost
people, now take to the air when the weather and forest conditions
are right for fires sparked by lightening.
"Emergency services are a large part of our mission," said
Robert Hunt, one of the pilots. "And wildland fire is a big part
of that."
The CAP has five Cessna airplanes available. The only cost to
the state for the program is the $65 to $75 an hour cost to fly
them. The pilots donate their time.
When a pilot and spotter find a fire in its infancy, they mark
the coordinates using a global positioning system in the plane,
then report the exact fire location to dispatchers.
One of the planes is also equipped with a satellite phone system
that allows the spotter to take a digital picture of the fire,
upload it to a laptop computer and e-mail it back to the dispatch
It instantly helps fire managers know how to respond, Lowe said.
"That digital picture gives us a lot of information as to the
type of terrain the fire's burning in, the fuels it's burning in
and any access difficulties," he said.
Homeland security money paid for the equipment, said Jerry
Densmore, another CAP pilot. Eventually, the group would like to
add infrared capabilities that can detect even smoldering fires, he
Because weather conditions in the summer often produce storms
that pack lightning, the four pilots qualified to spot fires are
kept busy, Densmore said.
"Thunderstorms are not unusual up here," he said.
Eric Hineman, commander of the Rushmore Composite Squadron, the
name of the local CAP, said it's gratifying to be able to help
protect people and property from wildland fires.
"As dry as it is out here, we've got to find them fast," he
Lowe said the airborne effort replaces fire towers as the best
way to quickly respond.
"We're beyond fire towers," he said. "Slow mobilization
efforts contribute to big fires."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)