An Oregon Department of Forestry-contracted air tanker drops a load of retardant on a wildfire on Antioch Road in Sams Valley Monday afternoon. Air tankers in recent weeks have been hindered in their efforts to fight fires by private pilots flying into the airspace to get a closer look, fire officials said. - Bob Pennell

Fanning the flames

Rich Webster could barely believe his eyes when his lead plane scouting ahead of an air tanker carrying retardant approached the 150-acre Humbug Creek fire in the Applegate Valley.

"Everywhere you looked there were six, seven little hang gliders and ultra lights," he said. "It was like moths attracted to a flame."

The July 22 incident delayed an aerial attack on the fire until the private aircraft were shooed away. And it created a hazard to all those in the air, he said.

"The bottom line is we couldn't put that fire out until those aircraft went away," said Webster, a veteran firefighter whose job as air tactical supervisor in a lead plane places him in charge of the airspace over a wildfire. The small plane flies ahead of the tanker, marking with smoke the area where the tanker pilot should drop the retardant.

Unfortunately, unauthorized aircraft flying into the dangerous airspace above wildfires seems to be a growing problem in Oregon. A nonfirefighting airplane flew into the restricted airspace near the 10-acre Galls Creek fire near Gold Hill on July 25. And a television news helicopter got in the way of the lead plane carrying Webster over a wildfire near The Dalles on Friday.

"Someone is going to be drastically hurt if it continues," warned Phil Hufstader, the Medford air tanker base manager for the Oregon Department of Forestry. "What we're having right now is an influx of a lot of new pilots."

"They are showing up over these fires and we're coming in with large air tankers and trying to make drops," he added. "They are taking 'looky-looks' and getting right square in the middle of the fire. It's causing a real safety problem for us."

Pilots venturing into the congested airspace need to understand they are placing themselves as well as the aerial firefighters in jeopardy, said Jim Ziobro, state aviation specialist and safety officer for the ODF.

"When people see a wildfire, they need to stay away," he said. "It's a very dangerous airspace. We could have anywhere from five to ten aircraft over an incident at any one time. Other aircraft coming in puts everybody at risk."

Firefighting agencies have established a Fire Traffic Area for safety.

"We've established a perimeter in which all aircraft, even an agency aircraft, can't enter the airspace without calling in first," explained Webster, who works for the Alaskan Division of Forestry but is employed by ODF after the fire season is rained out by late July in the Last Frontier.

"When they are 12 nautical miles out, they have to call us," he continued. "If we don't clear them to come in, they can't come in."

Even those who are cleared to enter the airspace must check in again at seven nautical miles away from the fire, he said.

Webster, who hails from Etna, Calif., was in his role as air tactical supervisor near The Dalles when the news helicopter from Portland flew into the airspace over a wildfire on Friday.

"We were lining up for a retardant drop on the fire when a person on the ground asked if we saw the helicopter entering our airspace in our pattern," he said. "I had not seen it at that point. Indeed, I looked over and there was a helicopter that had entered at our altitude when we were on base to the final (approach) to drop retardant.

"At that point, we had to cease operations," he added. "They kept coming in to get the camera shot. We went around once. We went around twice. Finally, he backed off."

The ODF was notified Monday by the FAA that the helicopter pilot, who had attended a wildfire safety meeting before the fire, has been placed on probation, Hufstader said.

"We were delayed about 15 minutes getting that retardant on the ground," Webster said. "If that had been a fire threatening homes ... that 15 minutes is very valuable time that was lost."

Lives and property could be lost by irresponsible or uninformed pilots, he said.

"The airspace around a wildfire is a very dangerous place," Webster said. "There are air tanker operations and air attacks. There are helicopters. There could even be smokejumpers dropping in with parachutes."

When a fire is reported, agencies committed to battling it — particularly a wildfire threatening lives and property — don't have time to warn pilots, Hufstader said.

"I have 11 minutes to make a dispatch when a fire order comes in," Hufstader said. "There is absolutely no way I could contact all the mom and pop airstrips out there. It comes down to this: If you are a pilot and see smoke, you need to pull away."

Most pilots of smaller aircraft don't realize that a lumbering air tanker doesn't have the maneuverability they do, Hufstader said.

"If another aircraft is suddenly in front of them, there is no abort," he said. "The end result will be a fatality. Nobody walks away from a midair crash."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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