April 18 there was a grass fire in the sandhills, started by ATVs south of the Arkansas River, approximately 10 miles southwest of Lakin, Kansas. Larry Smith, Tri-Rotor Spray and Chemical, was driving on Highway 50 west of Lakin and saw the fire before anyone at the Tri-Rotor Lakin operation (approximately 10 miles southeast of the fire) was aware of it.
By Andrew Reimer
The Tri-Rotor pilots were caught up on spraying and were working around the shop, getting ready for the season to get busy. Larry notified the pilots of the fire and to start getting airplanes filled with water and fueled. Andrew Reimer piloted an AT-802, Scott Oliphant in another AT-802 and Eric German was in a 660 Thrush.
The Thrush had previously been fire carded but has been used only for spraying the last 15 years; neither of the AT-802s were carded. At the time of the fire, winds were north-to-northwest at 30 to 40 mph. Tri-Rotor made contact with the local fire department, who said they could use all the help they could get.
The three pilots took off with their first loads around 2 pm. Each airplane made 8-10 drops on and around the fire for a total of around 18,000 gallons of water. Larry and his son, Bryan Smith, were in their pickups at the fire directing the pilots on where the fire department and local farmers on tractors with discs wanted the water dropped. There were approximately five tractors with harrowing discs working to contain the fire. However, in the sandhills sand will easily give way causing the tractors to bury themselves up to their axles getting stuck, especially when working uphill.
Several tractors got stuck. When that happened, the Tri-Rotor pilots focused their drops on the fire line next to the stuck tractor. This gave the tractor driver time to unstick the tractor. Later that evening once the fire had been extinguished, Larry got a call from the mother of one of the tractor drivers. She told him how grateful she was that we saved her son’s life. The son said when he got stuck the fire was coming right at him. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of the fire, when all of a sudden one of Tri-Rotor’s airplanes came over the top of the hill and dumped water on and around him.
Tri-Rotor is headquartered near Ulysses, Kansas with locations in Lakin, Hugoton and Montezuma Kansas, Guymon and Texhoma Oklahoma, Yuma and Buckeye, Arizona and Brawley, California. The company operates two AT-802s, a 660 Thrush, AT-602, 510 Thrush, two AT-502s, two AT-402s, two Cessna C-188s, six Bell OH58s and two Bell 206 Jet Rangers. The company has been in business since 1980. Tri-Rotor considered its efforts in the sandhill fire a donated community service.
Photos: • A Tri-Rotor Thrush 660 makes a water drop over smoking grasslands in the sandhills of Lakin, Kansas, possibly saving a tractor driver’s life. • Smoke plumes of sandhills fire. (two pics)