Fighting fire by air helps keep Lincoln County prepared

By Moira Blazi


When fires ignite in remote, and largely roadless areas of the national forest, the U.S. Forest Service uses the air to mount their initial attacks. Especially in steep, and heavily wooded forests, helicopters are called up right away.

The Zulu  fire, burning in a remote and roadless area in the Yaak, is now being held in check by an array of awesome flying machines and a host of highly trained pilots and mechanics from all over the western states.

Primarily staging at the Libby Airport’s Forest Service helibase, these resources were on hand to tidily begin to knock down a quick moving wildfire that erupted Thursday afternoon on highway 37 right across the highway from the River’s Edge trailer court neighborhood.

“Right now, we’ve got contractors from all over staging here,” said Tom Rawlings, Helicopter Program Manager for the Kootenai National Forest. “Including aircrafts from Atlanta, Georgia, Bozeman, Montana, Missoula, Montana, and a CH 47 D type one Chinook from Aurora, Oregon. Our largest and most capable firefighting helicopter,” Rawlings told The Montanan. “We’re all here to fight fire.”

The impressive type one Chinook, contracted from Columbia Helicopters, Inc. is here with two civilian trained pilots and three master mechanics. Sheldon Stump and Mark Ehle, hailing from North Carolina and Arizona, pilot the Chinook which can suck up 2.8 thousand gallons of water in a little over a minute. “It then takes less than two seconds to release,” Ehle said.

The large helicopter holds a water tank, which takes up most of the interior space. The hydraulic power unit is capable of drawing 55 gallons per second into the baffled tank. When working a fire, it carries no crew except the two pilots.

Master mechanics Tell Hunting, Brandon Bomny, and Kevin Beckman keep the mechanical marvel safely in the air. With six to 13 years under their belts, these guys travel with the Chinook all over the country. “So far this season, we’ve been mostly in New Mexico and Colorado fighting fires,” Beckman told The Montanian.

“Firefighting is only about 15% of what we do at Columbia,” Ehle said. “14 of our fleet are currently deployed over in Afghanistan, two are in Papua New Guinea working on oil and gas exploration, one is in Colorado, one is in Yosemite, California, and one is here fighting fire,” he said.  Columbia’s helicopters are also widely used in stream restoration projects and logging, Ehle said.

In addition to the Chinook, a K-Max Helicopter is here in Libby from Bozeman, Montana. Sporting an impressive black and red paint job, the specialized aircraft is “designed to be the perfect lifting machine,” said pilot Will Jacobs. “It has two blades which counter-rotate, making a more efficient lifting design. The engine in the K-Max and the engine in a Huey (standard helicopter design) are the same horsepower, but the shape of the aircraft is very different,” said Jacobs.

The K-Max is very narrow, not designed to carry cargo, but designed to do some heavy water lifting. Its lack of a rear tail propeller is not a problem, Jacobs said, if the craft is not trying to head counter to a strong wind, and it is very stable, controllable and efficient.

“We would not be able to do our job without our contractors,” said Helicopter Manager Rawlings. When asked about the Zulu fire up in the Yaak, Rawlings said, “We pounded it down pretty good in the first few days.” As of July 20, it was about 30 acres, and not growing much,” he told The Montanian.

The Highway 37 fire was estimated to be 40-60 acres as of Sunday, July 22. Investigation is ongoing but it is believed to have been caused by discarded smoking material along the road.

In addition to air resources, there are three engines, two water tenders, an excavator with masticator, two dozers, two skidgens and numerous firefighters and crews assigned at the Highway 37 fire.

The fire is of unique concern because it is located near the old, asbestos contaminated W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. Public and firefighter safety is of highest priority, so extra measures are being taken which include the use of person protective equipment in a Modified Fire Response Zone.

Decontamination procedures are also required following firefighting activities within the zone to protect against potential asbestos exposure.

Here in northwest Montana, we are fortunate to have access to technologically advanced equipment and highly skilled personnel available for fighting fires.

Definitely “on the map” in the firefighting world, Lincoln County and the Kootenai National Forest are as ready as can be for the fire season ahead.

Top: Incident commander Lauer on scene near at the Highway 37 fire last week. Bottom Left: The K-Max helicopter from Bozeman. Bottom Right: Pilots Sheldon Stump and Mark Ehle stand in front of the Columbia Chinook helicopter. Photos by Moira Blazi, The Montanian.