Brave pilots take to the skies to fight area wildfires

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  • Pictured left to right are: Mark Mamuzich, of Missoula; Mike Campbell, of Dutton, Mont.; Jake McDonald, of Tennessee; and Randy Bolen, of Arkansas. All four are single engine aircraft pilots, contracted to help fight fires around Western Montana. (Ashley Fox/Lake County Leader)

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  • Pictured left to right are: Mark Mamuzich, of Missoula; Mike Campbell, of Dutton, Mont.; Jake McDonald, of Tennessee; and Randy Bolen, of Arkansas. All four are single engine aircraft pilots, contracted to help fight fires around Western Montana. (Ashley Fox/Lake County Leader)

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Along with smoke, air traffic is a bit heavier during wildfire season.

Working to contain fires is something that pilots from around the country do, sometimes year after year.

Contracting for companies to combat the fires, pilots are assigned to fires for days at a time.

While they are waiting for the fires to flare up or calm down, pilots wait for the next assignment and are on call between each shift.

A group of pilots were waiting for their next assignment Monday afternoon at the Ronan Airport when they gave a brief glimpse into what it takes to keep a town safe from fire up in the air.

Randy Bolen, of Arkansas, said that he hears from his bosses on where to go fight fires, “then I get in my car and drive up,” pick up a plane and go to the fire.

Single engine air tankers, or SEATs, are aircraft that get close into the fires, where larger planes and helicopters cannot go.

For most, the love of flying through the Rocky Mountains as well as keeping people safe is what makes the job rewarding, according to pilots at the Ronan Airport on Monday afternoon.

Five pilots including Bolen, as well as Damon Allen, of Bozeman; Mark Mamuzich, of Missoula; Mike Campbell of Dutton, Mont.; and Jake McDonald, of Tenn.; explained what fighting fire from up in the sky is entails.

“A lot of preplanning” goes into containing and maintaining a fire, according to Mamuzich, who also owns Minuteman Aviation. He added that luck has its roll in the equation, too.

He said that while attacking a fire, it can be steered in a certain direction if needed.

“(A fire can be) steered like cattle,” Bolen added.

Both McDonald and Allen were in town the day of the auto yard fire in Arlee at the end of July.

Allen said that so far in his three-year career fighting fires from the sky, that has been the most memorable.

Air attack personnel are busiest coordinating where each pilot is going to enter and exit the vicinity, dropping water or the retardant.

“He’s the busiest guy on the whole fire,” Campbell said, adding that air attack personnel keep all aircraft separated from each other.

Bolen said that pilots listen to the air attack personnel, who listen to the fire coordinator.

The chain of command is put in place to keep everyone working to safely get the fire contained or extinguished, the group agreed.

Bolen explained that pilots drop their loads as close to the fire as 60 feet or as far as 90 feet.

One thing that Mamuzich said pilots sometimes do is waive flights if they get close to a fire and see a more dangerous situation than what is observed from the ground.

“Always know when to say ‘no,’” he said, with Bolen adding, “Safety, safety, safety.”

Campbell said that safety is exercised for pilots, along with trusting instinct, because if they get injured, it causes more problems for everyone working together to contain the blaze.

“The thing to remember with this retardant is we buy them a little time, but we’re supporting the guys on the ground,” Campbell said, adding that firefighters who go in the fire are able to do their job fighting the blazes after the pilots help slow the spread of flames.

“Our job isn’t to put (the fires) out. It’s to contain and suppress,” Bolen said.

Bolen said that the retardant pilots use is fertilizer-based, and one thing he enjoys looking at are photos of where he’s worked after time has passed, because new growth of plants can be seen where he dropped the flame retardant, stopping or slowing a fire.

“Basically all we can do at this point, with the Liberty or Sunrise (fires), is keep it away from the structures,” McDonald said.

McDonald said that from the sky, large fires tend to look black because of the smoke, accompanied with red lines around houses and sheds, along with the fires themselves, and the area within that red perimeter stays green.

“That’s what it’s about,” he said.

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