Idaho Finds Small Planes a Big Help on Wildfires

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) -- Idaho has contracted for seven single-engine air tankers to fight wildfires this season, more than any other state and one of the reasons fire managers believe they've been able to keep a lid on big blazes this year.

''Idaho, without a doubt, has the most aggressive initial attack of any state I've been involved in,'' Jeff Southern, chief pilot of Evergreen Flying Service, told the Lewiston Tribune. The Rayville, La.-based company, one of several with similar names, is flying four AT-802 single-engine air tankers in Idaho this year, augmenting three other single-engine planes on contract from Canada that also drop retardant on fires.

Other states may hire one or two single-engine tanker planes during their fire season but they primarily rely on the federally contracted large, multi-engine air tankers that move from region to region westward as the season progresses.

As the aging fleet of federally contracted large air tankers are phased out, it's critical to have the small tankers positioned in the state and ready to fly on short notice, said Bob Burke, contracting officer for aviation with the Idaho Department of Lands at Coeur d'Alene.

''These will not replace a large air tanker but they do mitigate the loss,'' Burke said. ''We are just trying to do what is best for us.''

The state contracted for its first single-engine air tanker in 2003. They can carry just 800 pounds of retardant _ about a third of the 2,400 pounds a large tanker can drop on a fire in a single pass. But the smaller planes are becoming popular for their increased maneuverability and the ability to attack multiple fronts of a fire simultaneously.

''They work real good in a swarm,'' said Thom Hawkins, area supervisor for the Idaho Department of Lands at Craigmont.

By having the small aircraft stationed in the state, fire managers don't have to wait for federal planes to begin initial attack.

''The federal government is there but we have to be asked to come in,'' said Mark Bickham, who oversees the federal single-engine air-tanker program for the Department of the Interior from the Interagency Fire Center in Boise. ''Aircraft are very expensive, especially when you aren't using them. But you need them there when you need them.''

Five single-engine air tankers worked in tandem with three firefighting helicopters last week on a hillside fire near Peck in northcentral Idaho, with the tankers dropping retardant ahead of the flames moving uphill and the helicopters working to extinguish the downhill portion of the fire.

''We usually catch the top and bottom pretty fast,'' said Hawkins. ''Then, day after day, we work (on) keeping them from going laterally.''

But some fires this season have threatened to outlast even the combined capacity of large and small air tankers with helicopter support. All of the state's contracted planes responded to the Blackerby fire near Grangeville after it broke out Aug. 9 and roared toward nearly 100 homes.

''I don't think anything could have stopped it,'' says Eric Bradley, chief pilot for Forest Protection Unlimited, a not-for-profit agency of the Canadian government, which is operating three planes out of Coeur d'Alene this summer for the state.

Bradley flew the first two drops on the Blackerby fire and then it became too dark to fly.

''I thought there would be houses gone by morning,'' he says. ''But there weren't.''

Air and ground crews ultimately saved all the houses that were originally threatened by the fire, which burned nearly 5,000 acres in the two weeks before it was extinguished.