Air support proves invaluable in fighting wildfires - - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - |

Air support proves invaluable in fighting wildfires

SPRINGER, Okla. (AP) -- Ron Thompson watered the grass outside his rural Carter County home Wednesday afternoon as a wildfire edged closer to his land.

"I'm retired from the fire department," he said, "so this is no big deal."

A big reason for Thompson's confidence flew overhead.

When four different fires sprang up in the area, the U.S. Forest Service fought back using a fleet of heavy tanker planes.

Three of the planes took off from a base established Tuesday at Ardmore Industrial Airpark and dropped thousands of gallons of fire retardant on the blazes, squelching them before they spread and making the job of firefighters on the ground much easier.

The heavy tanker planes have been effective weapons for firefighters, both in battling blazes in rural areas with little or no water access and in keeping fires in urban areas from threatening homes and lives.

Statewide, grass fires have killed two people, burned across 361,000 acres and destroyed more than 220 homes and businesses since Nov. 1. Oklahoma Agriculture Secretary Terry Peach said Thursday that his department will be sending about $2,100 to each of the state's nearly 875 rural departments. They were to get the money in June but the payment was speeded to help the departments defray costs of battling the rash of fires.

The state has been locked into a pattern of unseasonably warm, dry and windy weather that has parched the region and led to extreme fire danger in the region. The dry weather continued Thursday, with highs near 60 degrees and winds of up to 25 mph in many locations.

The heavy tankers can cover up to 1,000 yards of fire line with one drop, said Danny Kellogg, an aviation operations specialist for the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Region office in Atlanta.

The planes can fly as low as 150 feet while dropping their loads, said Del Hunt of Helena, Mont., who's flown the heavy tankers for two decades.

"You want to get it right on in there," Hunt said. "It's an art laying those lines in there. You have to learn how to be able to read the smoke and the wind, because the wind pushes the smoke. It's a matter of staying parallel to the terrain at a specific height and putting down the right coverage level."

By Wednesday night, four heavy tanker planes were at the base in Ardmore, with four others remaining at Fort Smith, Ark., where the four at Ardmore had flown from previously.

At the Ardmore base, crews mix retardant powder with water and load the mixture onto the planes, which can carry between 2,250 gallons and 2,650 gallons, Kellogg said.

The retardant arrived at the Ardmore base Tuesday afternoon, and an hour later, the tankers took off to drop their load on a fire. Having an Ardmore base allows the tankers to better service Oklahoma and northeast Texas, Kellogg said.

"We're spread out enough so that both bases can serve a separate geographic area and provide quicker response," he said. "We're gearing up for the long haul."

On Wednesday across Oklahoma, about a dozen grass fires flared in dry, sunny conditions, but as they did in Carter County, firefighters were able to quickly knock down flames, state fire information officer C.J. Norvell said.

Statewide, grass fires have killed two people, burned across 353,000 acres and destroyed more than 220 homes and businesses since Nov. 1.

Wednesday evening, Gov. Brad Henry announced plans to expand the statewide burn ban -- in effect since Nov. 15 -- to prohibit campfires and outdoor charcoal grilling. The expanded ban, which will take effect Thursday, also includes stricture requirements on outdoor welding.

Highs were in the low 60s Wednesday in mostly sunny weather. Winds stayed under 20 mph in most areas. No rain was in sight. Forecasters predicted that Saturday could be a particularly dangerous day, with warm temperatures, low humidity and high winds expected.

"It's getting kind of ridiculous, actually," National Weather Service forecaster Bruce Thoren said. "It's one thing to be dry. It's another thing to be dry and have above-average temperatures like we've had the last two weeks."
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