National Guard helicopter crew battles wildfires

Wednesday, September 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALESTER, Okla.--His body strapped to the floor of the CH47 Chinook helicopter and his eyes looking through an open hatch, Doug Kimberlin stares raging fires right in the face.

The Chinook shudders as the 60-foot-long rotor blades take huge bites of scorching air.

Yelling "To the right" or "A little more to the left," to the pilot, Kimberlin guides the helicopter exactly into the heart of the raging beast.

Pressing a button on a hand-gripped joystick, the aviation firefighter releases 1,000 gallons of water onto the flames.

"With one dump of the water bucket we can put out more of the fire than a firefighter on the ground could do in several hours," he said.

Kimberlin is one of several aviation firefighters stationed at the McAlester Regional Airport to help fight blazes during the fire season in southeastern Oklahoma. They are using Chinooks and Blackhawks.

Chinooks are larger than Blackhawks. The floorboards of a Chinook give each time a person walks across them, springing up and down and causing an unsettling feeling to some people.

"That's not a bad thing, it's a good thing," pilot Dan Halley laughed. "We could even transport a vehicle in here if we needed to."

The men who fight fires from helicopters consider them invaluable tools against an enemy that doesn't believe in slowing down to let someone catch up to it. To get as far ahead of the fire as possible, they use a collapsible water bucket. In the Blackhawk, the bucket holds 500 gallons; the Chinooks water bucket holds 1,000 gallons.

During takeoff, the buckets are folded up and placed on the floor of the helicopters, which are then flown to the nearest lake or pond.

Carlos Cascante, another aviation firefighter, said the wind generated by the helicopters causes the water to move and without people like Kimberlin, it would be extremely hard to tell exactly where to place the bucket.

Even though the area near the pilot's feet is made of clear material and he can look down and see the fire, the Chinook is 50 feet long and that causes a few seconds of delay. Halley said Kimberlin, with his face looking through the opening in the floorboards, makes up for that difference.

Not every fire can be fought with a helicopter. They have to be requested through the State Emergency Management Agency because they are not cheap to fly.

"Six gallons of fuel a minute, 400 gallons of fuel an hour," Kimberlin said.

Manpower also doesn't come cheap. While the aviation firefighters are part of the National Guard, they also have other jobs. Kimberlin, for instance, is a police lieutenant in Oklahoma City who must take time off work to fight fires for a week at a time.

Halley said he is self-employed, which makes it much easier to leave at a moment's notice.

"And we have to leave our families," he said. "It's a big sacrifice to leave our families and our jobs, but it's worth it to put out these fires."