ODF firefighters in Forest Grove get practice run with new tool

Published: Jun. 28, 2022 at 5:31 PM PDT
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FOREST GROVE, Ore. (KPTV) - With fire season at Oregon’s doorstep, firefighters with the Oregon Department of Forestry’s (ODF) Forest Grove division got to practice fighting wildland fires with a new aircraft fleet.

Two Air Tractor AT-802 Fire Bosses landed at the Hillsboro Airport Tuesday so firefighters could get a briefing on the aircraft’s capabilities in the fire zone. ODF is on year two contracting these planes through Costal Airstrike and Tuesday’s training was a way for crews to get familiar with the aircraft ODF’s Aviation Manager, Neal Laugle, said.

“Many of the folks on the ground are not used to talking to aircraft and it can be a very nervous thing for your first time so this allows them to work with the pilots and the aircraft under a controlled situation,” Laugle said.

ODF’s contract with Coastal Airstrike lasts 10 years but over the tenure, they will be used on fire lines throughout the state. Michael Hutchins is a pilot of one of the Fire Bosses and he said these planes are more versatile than other firefighting air support.

“We see the location of the fire, we can immediately go to a map, and we can tell exactly how many miles away we are,” Hutchins said.

Gliding across the water at Henry Hagg Lake, the single-engine planes picked up 800 gallons of water in 15 seconds. Hutchins and the other pilot guided their Fire Bosses to a burn scar west of Henry Hagg Lake left by a previous fire. Perched on a ridge, firefighters practice sending drop locations to the pilots in the scar zone.

Hutchins said his plane can quickly pick up water, fly to a drop zone, dump the water, and quickly return to the lake to refill. Like a helicopter, the plane can use almost any body of water to refill. But unlike a helicopter, it has the speed of a plane to quickly get to the fire lines. This efficiency makes Fire Bosses cheaper to operate.

“Sometimes the proof is in the numbers and what’s sitting in front of you,” Hutchins said. “So when we do training, when we do things with the higher-ups at ODF and show them that, that’s why the contract comes about because they see the benefit,” Hutchins said.

ODF said each fire boss costs the agency about $200,000 a year to operate. Though that seems like a lot, a single supertanker, like the Boeing 747, can cost ODF $1.2 million a year.

“We’re now at 28 aircrafts and the fire bosses are the latest edition to do that with last year being their first year,” Laugle said.

With fire season inching closer, it’s more than likely the fleet of Fire Bosses will be called upon to help. If you see one flying overhead, Hutchins will likely be in the cock pit.

“At the end of the day, we have a lot of fun,” Hutchins said. “So when you can have fun doing anything and you’re actually helping people or helping save things, there’s nothing else to say about it. It’s awesome.”