Friday, August 22, 2014

"Welcome to Oregon. We hope you brought a fire extinguisher."

Sorry for the lousy shot.  It's hard to snap a picture at 75mph.  I had to blow it up to display it here.

Oregon used to take a little heat from their old border sign stating "Welcome to Oregon.  We hope you enjoy your visit" which was a subtle way of saying please visit, but just don't stay. Now it's the more inviting "Oregon Welcomes You."  I recently returned from a quick trip up there to visit family on the occasion of the wife's little sis #1 turning 40.  When my father retired from the Navy, we moved from San Diego to a piece of property in Selma Oregon.  I’m using the term “property” vice “home” because we were moving to 5 acres of unimproved land that my father had purchased while on leave from the Navy.  He was stationed at Alameda Naval Air Station in the Bay Area and decided to take a drive up the 101, eventually finding his way up the Redwood Highway into Southern Oregon.  He fell in love with the beautiful green tree-filled landscape of the Pacific Northwest and wanted to have a share in it.

Ye Olde Oregon Homestead.  My father and grandfather built this.

What you see in that picture is a lot of green surrounding the home in the previous photo.  That’s how I remember Oregon, thick green woods filled with pine trees and former logging roads.  Except now, as you can see in the intro picture, it’s not all that green.  Sure, the trees are all still there (Environmentalists saving the Spotted Owl have pretty much killed the timber industry in the area), but the hillsides not covered in trees are all dry and brown.  Years of drought have led to the driest countryside ever seen in the PacNorwest.  And that means perfect fire conditions.

It seems like the entire state is on fire.  Not quite, but close.  So close that my brother, an Oregon Army National Guardsman was busy driving a water tanker truck into the area near this fire:
Old Blue Mountain Fire in Southern Oregon
This is the "Old Blue Mountain Fire", but  there are several others.  As I researched this post, the websites couldn't even keep up with the news reports as new fires were popping up as old ones like this were being contained.  Many due to lightning, some to unknown causes, still under investigation, which unfortunately means arson for a couple of them.

It's a little disconcerting that at least for my family, they’ve gotten very used to the smoky air, the fire reports, and the sound of the firefighting aircraft flying over.  That last one surprised me.  Due to my aviation background, I almost ALWAYS look up when I hear aircraft fly over, but it didn’t even faze them.  During dinner in the backyard of my sister-in-law’s place, both an Ericson AirCrane (formerly the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe) and a Bell 412 (UH-1 Huey) flew overhead, probably on their way to Lake Selmac to pick up another load of water.

My original intent for this post was to discuss the military aircraft that have gone onto civilian use in various roles, or to other militaries.  My inspiration for this idea came from my last post about the S-3's heading for Korea.  I got to thinking about the S-2 Tracker and how the Navy sold them to many other countries, of which some are still in use.   However, in the middle of my effort to gather pictures of those second-life aircraft, I drove into Oregon and realized there was another story to tell. 

The S-2T barely resembles its Stoof/Tracker roots, with new turboprop engines and a nosejob.
CAL-Fire, or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a fleet of 23 S-2T 1200 gallon airtankers.  My wife's uncle flew S-2s for the Navy, then later for CAL-Fire.  These Trackers aren't operating in Oregon, but they do great work in also-fire-ravaged California.  There are quite a few former Navy aircraft in the firefighting biz as they are well qualified for the rigors of the job.

"After World War II ended, an abundance of surplus military aircraft found their way into the fledgling aerial firefighting industry.  The combination of a large payload and the high performance of many bombers, attack aircraft, and transports allowed enterprising companies to modify airframes with large tanks for carrying borate and water for dousing wildfires.  Some of these modifications were straightforward; large tanks were inserted into existing bomb bays and after the bomb bay doors were opened, the payload was released by opening valves.  Other aircraft were fitted with tanks within the fuselage, with plumbing inserted through the floor to allow for the release of the fire suppressant underneath the aircraft."

The Tracker and a buddy

The Tracker is obviously not alone.  The P-2V Neptune, P-3 Orion, and even my beloved PBY Catalina have been put to use fighting fires.

Aircraft* attacking the Rogue River Drive fire in Southern Oregon last week.
(Photo by Jamie Lusch, Medford Mail-Tribune)

These airplanes have gone from dropping torpedoes to dropping water or fire retardant on their enemy.  There are several others in the game, not just the bombers.  Tankers obviously have a role as well. 

DC-10 operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, on deck in Medford Oregon 

10 Tanker Air Carrier on the job
Coulson C-130 Air Tanker

They've followed other aircraft such as the B-17, B-25, DC-3, PB4Y Privateer, F7F Tigercat and Grumman TBM Avenger.  Some of these aircraft didn't wait to be civilianized before joining the fight.  The C-130, UH-1, MH-60S, CH-46, CH-47, CH-53, (and probably others) have played a role in firefighting while still on active duty.

An Oregon Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter returns to the Madras Airport after successfully dumping water on a target area in the Logging Unit Fire.

Video Links here and here.  Turn your volume down for the second one.

These aircraft need some airborne command and control and fire-spotting to aid in their fight.  The AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter and the OV-10A Bronco assist in that role.  You probably noticed the Bronco earlier in this post.  Here's another shot.

The AH-1 surprised me.  I had no idea these had transitioned to a firefighting role.  More specifically, a fire-scouting role. 

These were being preflighted at the Weed Airport (no, not that kind of weed) in Northern California.  Probably heading for one or more of several wildfires raging in the region.  The US Forest Service has two dozen in their livery, which are used around the country.  With multiple sensors onboard, their mission is primarily Firefighter Support using an infrared thermal imager.
With the FLIR System IR camera's ability to see even the smallest of surface temperature change, areas of concern that are hidden due to smoke are now visible from the air. Using an air-to-ground frequency, the FireWatch Cobra can have a 'bird's eye view' of the fire below while the firefighters on the ground can be directed to areas of concern.
While the air attack capability is awesome and an outstanding force-multiplier, these battles can't be won from the air alone.  It takes a ton of courageous men and women on the ground to clear brush, create firebreaks, and cool down hot-spots.  In fact the young man that grew up in my room after my family sold it to his father, stood on those fire lines for a few summers while going to college;  Later graduating to become a member of the thin blue line in Benton County Oregon.

As for the fire closest to home?  As of the time I'm posting this, my brother was still on the job, but not nearly as busy as he had been.

Thousands of gallons of helicopter-borne water was poured on the Old Blue Mountain Fire Tuesday, significantly knocking out numerous hot spots within the 99-acre blaze that broke out late Monday during a thunderstorm. Early this morning, Incident Commander Steve Wetmore (ODF) reported “Old Blue is one hundred percent lined and one hundred percent plumbed,” meaning the fire line was completed overnight and a system of fire hoses now encircles the burned area. The fire is 30 percent contained. The firefighters’ objective today is to mop-up hot spots 300 feet inside the fire line and patrol outside of the fire line to watch for spot fires. Helicopters and air tankers are available, if necessary.
 I'm sure glad they're available and I'm thankful for all the firefighters keeping my former home safe.  I know they've given my Oregon family some peace of mind, they don't even look up anymore.

*Can anyone help with the make and model of this one?  Lockheed Electra?  P-3A? C-118 Liftmaster?  I'm stumped.
Authors Note:  Confirmed by Uncle Skip in the comments- DC-7 


  1. Great post! Wetmore, what a great name for a firefighter!
    Your mystery aircraft looks like a DC-6 to me, but I'm still on my first cup of coffee, so could be mistaken.

    1. I agree on the UFO... either a DC-6 or a DC-7.

  2. I'm fortunate [sic] enough to live in the landing pattern for Redding Municipal Airport (RDD).
    So I have seen most of those featured in your post.
    In the past I saw B-17s and other fine aircraft.
    I've even seen Air Force One fly into and then out in 2008 when George Bush came to see and applaud the efforts of the firefighters and first responders, when dry lightning caused over 1000 fires in the North State.
    I have also been privileged to see CalFire aircraft at work at other locations around the state.
    The P-2 looks just as awesome coming low over a fire as it does coming in low to drop a sonobuoy.
    Stoofs are fun because the sound so good, besides they are truly effective tools.

    Somewhere I my collection of photos I have some shots take from the roof of my house showing CalFire planes in a scary suburban setting.

    I recognize the asterisk as a DC-7 from Butler Aviation.
    I further confirmed it at Gurgle's Images (see here.

  3. Thanks! I've always liked driving through Redding. It's a great stopping point on our drive up to Oregon. It seems like a nice sized town- not too big, not too small, woods and rivers and lakes nearby, and...Dutch Bros!

  4. I just drove through all that country this week (Sacramento to Portland and back again). The smoke was at it's worst between Mount Shasta and Yreka, and then again in central Oregon. Lots of CalFire people at the Black Bear Diner in Yreka where we stopped for lunch. Clearly there are several significant fires to keep the crews and their air support pretty busy.

  5. If you are ever in the vicinity of Greybull, Wyoming, make it a point to stop at the airport. There are dozens of aircraft being converted to fire fighting, and the hulks of donor airplanes. There is now a museum.

  6. Yep, ALL those guys clank when they walk... Had friends flying the P-3s out of Chico, including the one that crashed a couple of years ago.

  7. Those are some fine looking aircraft.

    Nice post Tuna!


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.