Eyes In The Sky Help Oklahoma Firefighters Stay On Top Of Wildfires

Tuesday, February 18th 2014, 11:46 pm
By: Tess Maune

Wildfires have burned through about a thousand acres in just the past few days. But that number would likely be much higher if it weren't for a few eyes in the sky.

It's the scene we've been seeing across the state, fast moving flames and an army of firefighters not far behind.

But what we haven't seen has been in the sky.

Del Aviation owner, Don Oltman, supplies the state with a team of pilots, trained to detect fires.

"We just fly around and look for fires," Oltman said.

The spotters aren't necessarily looking for flames; they're looking for smoke that, in some cases, is buried so deep in the tall timbers of eastern Oklahoma, that it can't be seen from ground level.

Once spotted, the pilots dispatch forest rangers, on the ground ready to fight the fire.

"There are times when we literally have to lead the rangers within just a few hundred feet of it and they still can't see it," said Oltman.

If they can't see it, that means there's still time to get in front of the fire and early detection is key.

Mark Goeller, Oklahoma Forestry Services Assistant Director, said, "We get to the fire while they're still small and get a line around it and get those suppressed before they really reach a status where they're problematic."

Oklahoma Forestry Services has been deploying detection aircraft for more than 30 years. They cover more than 6 million acres, stretching from the foothills of the Ozarks, to the dense forests of southeast Oklahoma. That's known as the fire protection area, it was designated in the 1920s as Oklahoma's Commercial Forest Land.

"That's our timber producer part of the state, where we have saw mills and paper mills," Goeller said. "And those areas depend on a timber supply for operation.

And while saving land is a large part of the process, the priority many times shifts to saving homes.

"We enjoy doing it because we enjoy protecting forests, we enjoy protecting timber from burning up and we certainly don't want to see anybody's home burn up," Oltman said.

The Forestry Service helps out other parts of the State when needed.