Coal Seam Fire battles won thanks to air operations
The man in charge of attacking the Coal Seam Fire from above does his job with his feet firmly planted on the ground. Jim Johnson is the air operations branch director for the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, and works as a fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming.”Our team is on call all year, a week at a time, but we all have other jobs,” he said.He’s charged with directing the air-attack efforts to snuff out the Coal Seam Fire. That means he’s the one ordering fire retardant – or slurry – drops and helicopter water drops that have become commonplace in Glenwood Springs over the past few days. Johnson told the Post Independent how the overall air assault on the fire is coordinated. He said there have been around 10 slurry drops each day since the fire began. “On Tuesday, we made four in the afternoon and six in the morning,” Johnson said. There were none on Wednesday until around 2 p.m., but as a stubborn flare-up began to grow, Johnson called in a “mud” drop. “Mud is a nickname for retardant,” Johnson explained. It’s the red-colored substance that’s dropped from the sky onto hot spots. It consists of water and two of types of fertilizer – ammonium phosphate and ammonium sulfate. It also contains a red dye – iron oxide – a thickening agent and an anti-corrosion chemical so the bottom doors of the air tanker don’t develop rust. -The planes are mostly ex-bombers from World War II, Johnson said. Tanks are installed in the planes’ bomb bays and the retardant is dropped from there. In Glenwood Springs, the DC-6 tanker has been the most commonly-used plane dropping the red clouds on the fires. “They’re either internal with doors on the bottom or, in some cases, the tank is mounted underneath the airplane. Some have individual gates,” he said. Planes with individual gates can either drop several smaller loads, or drop all the slurry at once. “The more modern airplanes are computer controlled,” he said. The amount they open depends on how much slurry needs to be dropped, and it’s done automatically. Johnson has served on Type 1 incident management teams since 1988. “Before that, I was on a Type 2 team,” he said. In all, Johnson has been a wildland firefighter since 1968. Each load of retardant that’s used in the hills around Glenwood Springs is mixed and loaded in Grand Junction. It takes from 20 to 30 minutes to fly each way, depending on the plane. There have been a few times during the last several days when those flights were suspended because of high winds. Somewhere around 30 mph is the maximum wind velocity in which tanker pilots can fly. “But it’s more dependent on turbulence rather than miles per hour,” Johnson said. One complaint Johnson has heard by local residents is that the planes aren’t flying enough in the morning.He explained why it appears they are doing little to snuff out the fire in the early hours. First, he said, by law pilots can fly a maximum of eight hours a day. “If we use them real early, we lose them later in the day,” he said. “The flying they do is tough. It wears on them, so we need to make sure they get good rest.”Secondly, they have to have fire management personnel in place, as well as firefighters on the lines before any drops can be made. “The best use of retardant and water from the helicopters is to help people on the ground. Water dries out and retardant evaporates, so you need people to utilize that,” he said.Johnson is also in charge of helicopter water drops. They fill up in the Colorado River, then dump the clear, cool water on area flare-ups. “There are several kinds of buckets,” he said. The simplest kind is dropped into the water and the water’s scooped into the top of the bucket. Another type is dropped into the water, when a gate opens, fills up, and is then reclosed. “The smallest helicopters carry about 100 gallons,” he said. “The biggest one can carry 2,000 gallons.”Those have a fixed tank and they dunk a snorkel into the water and a pump brings the water up.”What we call a medium helicopter, they carry about 400 gallons,” he said. -In Johnson’s 34 years of firefighting, he said the conditions in Colorado now are the worst early-season conditions he’s ever seen. “This early in the season? For sure,” he said, comparing it to other dry years like 1988, when Yellowstone National Park burned and 1994, when 14 firefighters died while fighting the Storm King Fire. “I think these are the worst fire conditions I’ve seen, especially for this time of year. Everywhere on the Front Range is brown.”Most of the Johnson’s team arrived for this fire on Sunday and the longest they can work consecutively is 14 days. “Then we have to be taken off,” he said.They can then get some much-needed rest, but that rest might be just two or three days before they’re reassigned.One way modern technology is playing a role in the air assault on the fire is through heat-sensing imagery that shows exactly which areas need the most immediate attention. “We have a helicopter out at the airport right now doing that type of work,” he said. That helicopter uses radiometric imaging to detect hot spots. Tuesday was the first day this technology was employed, so each successive day from then will be compared with images from the previous day. “It identifies hot spots. It can actually differentiate between different temperatures,” Johnson said. “It’s so we don’t waste a lot of time working on stuff that doesn’t need it.”-The majority of Wednesday’s drops were in South Canyon and Division “H,” or “Hotel.” That’s the classification of the area north of West Glenwood.Each type of aircraft – helicopters, slurry bombers and the “air attack” command plane – flies at different altitudes to avoid a midair collision. Air attack is sort of the mother ship, a fixed-wing plane flying at a high altitude and looking down at all the other aircraft and on the fire as a whole.”It’s an air traffic controller in the sky,” he said.Johnson’s job has a lot of responsibility and a lot of traveling, but he said he loves it. “I’ve been on fires in all the Western states except Arizona,” he said. “And even some Eastern states … But it’s hard on my wife. But he and his wife both expect this summer to be a long one. “It’s going to get real old by the end of this season,” he predicted.
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