Fire on the mountain, lightning in the sky

    Texas is one big state! Travelers passing through the Lone Star State like to say that once they leave Texas they are surely almost to their destination, wherever it may be.

    The state is divided into seven geographic regions: The Piney Woods, Gulf Coastal Plain, Brush Country, Hill Country, Panhandle, Cross Timbers and the Trans-Pecos. Each region is subject to wildfires when environmental conditions like a drought exists. On an average, Texas has about twice the number of acres scorched by wildfire than any other state.
    The Trans-Pecos Region is more prone to fire than any others. It shares the vast Chihuahua Desert with parts of both New and Old Mexico. Ironically, heavy rainfall in this normally arid region can lead to some of the worst fire conditions.
    The rains promote the growth of grass and other fire fuels which when cured by the heat and low humidity provide perfect kindle for a lightning strike or accidental spark.
    In the past, the Texas Forest Service (TFS) did not support wildland fire control in the regions of West Texas. In the never-ending reaches of the desert, it had been up to local ranchers and volunteer fire departments to chase the range fires that are inherent to the area. Steep mountains and treacherous terrain make the job very difficult. Things have changed over the past few decades since the TFS now lends its full support to wildland fire control.
    Texas is home to two Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) operators, GB Aerial, of Plains, and M&M Air Service, of Beaumont. The TFS has vowed to use these home state vendors whenever the need for SEATs arises. The vow held true in 2008 and 2009 when the two companies helped protect life and property.
    During these years, the state was suffering through a severe drought and had been issued a declaration signed by President Bush as in a state of emergency. This allowed wildland fire fighting operations to be funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The 2010 fire season is different; the emergency declaration has been lifted after widespread precipitation in the summer of 2009.
    In early 2010, both SEAT companies were given a heads up that current conditions could warrant fire activity around March 1, and they should be ready to respond. As a SEAT pilot for M&M, I arranged to be in West Texas, as did my fellow pilot and friend, Bill Rose.
    It was raining on the day Bill arrived in Fort Stockton, an omen perhaps. We would have to wait and see. The next few weeks we experienced an El Nino pattern developing that brought weekly rains and extremely high relative humidity levels. Bill and I stood by patiently, while our biggest decision of the day was where we would have lunch.
    The days dragged by with TFS employees telling us our day would come. On a year-to-year basis, each company is given first call status and this was M&M’s time at bat. We were ready.
    After a month of the wet, dreary weather, we gave up on having a fire season in West Texas. Bill returned to his home in South Dakota and I went to work on some pending brushwork in the Fort Stockton area. I had a feeling that if the crew got scattered things would dry out.
    The El Nino’ pattern continued through April. Like everyone else, I was about to resign that there would be no fire season in Texas. Then May arrived and the El Nino’ went south where it belongs. Century marks were breached on the thermometer and the afternoon showers dried up. The prolific grass crop went from green to brown; and by late May all we needed was an ignition source.
    On Memorial Day I was grilling a steak and watching storm clouds form over the Davis Mountains, sixty miles west of Fort Stockton. I could tell there was virga with very little reaching the ground. Cloud to ground lightning was putting on a show. While I sat watching nature’s fireworks, my phone rang.
    We were on! Numerous fires were raging in the mountains and we needed to be ready immediately. There would be no helicopters or Heavy Air Tankers (HATs), only SEAT aircraft. I knew it would be at least 24 hours before all personnel were in place. Driver/loaders would have to be flown in, SEAT managers put in place and a dispatcher on the radio before we could go to work.
    The first few days were rather hectic as dispatch and aircraft tried to get radios in sync, ground crews struggled to navigate the extreme terrain and decisions being made on which fires had priority. A fire on the western slope of the mountains was selected. Bill and I went to work on it as numerous structures were threatened.
    The terrain was very steep and the order was to hold it until ground crews could hike in. With an eighty-mile ferry, it was a tough job. It got tougher when Bill developed radio problems. He was grounded and I needed help. The decision was made to call in GB Aerial.
    GB Aerial’s elite ground crew had loading rigs set up at Marfa, Texas in short order. We began reloads from there. It was much closer to the fire and with four SEAT aircraft, we soon had the fire under control. With two reload bases, we became much more versatile to attack any fires that might flare up.
    Over the next week, the tempo slowed but the action did not. Numerous “sleeper” fires appeared. These are smolders that fire up when wind, relative humidity and heat combine to cause an ember to ignite. Usually one or two fire retardant loads will take care of them if spotted early enough.
    The TFS determined the majority of dry lightning would be on the western slope of the mountains. So, Bill and I moved to Van Horn, Texas. We could not get to the fires if we were on the eastern slope because the daily thunderstorms would block our way.
    Van Horn Is a tiny town nestled in the mountains of extreme West Texas. The shade tree out at the local airport became our tanker base with hand written dispatches the norm. The airport does not have much to offer except a long runway, which is what we needed.
    The tempo heated up when we set up in Van Horn, as numerous fires started popping along the mountains. These are serious mountains ranges. One fire of particular interest occurred on a mesa. The ground crews were unable to access it because of terrain, but the SEAT’s held it for two days until reinforcements arrived. This is the role where SEATs shine. The fire was not put out by them, but was confined to a controllable area.
    The West Texas fire season ended as fast as it had began. Hurricane Alex moved up the Rio Grande Valley and parked over the Big Bend area. Eleven inches of rain in one week ended any chance of more fires. During FEMA years, the firefighting force was huge and it called for a large amount of support personnel. This year the force was much smaller, a lean and mean fighting machine. The job was completed with no structure loss and no injuries.
    The summer fire season in West Texas lasted thirty days and was very intense. The fire danger will return and from all indications, it will be heavy again. After Hurricane Alex’s remnants had passed, the monsoon rains set in adding more fuel for the fall and winter fire season.
    The winter season could be a repeat of the disastrous 2005 winter season. The June fire season was good. I am on standby and for now I will find something else to do until the next fire call.

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