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High Points: Aerial ballet

Paul E. Anna
High Points

It was the sound that first got my attention.

From out of nowhere my roof literally began to shake from the roar of the rotors of the giant helicopter as it flew directly over my house. I ran outside just in time to see the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter powering through the sky a couple of hundred yards (or so it seemed) above the bluff where I live. It was impressive.

While I am not too near the Grizzly Fire, and the chopper was flying from the south near Snowmass to the north towards Ruedi, I assume it was part of the 17 craft helicopter flight team that has done such a magnificent job on the fire. Just knowing the dramatic topography Glenwood Canyon it is almost impossible not be amazed by the technical acumen that it must take for these chopper pilots to negotiate the winds, the shifting smoke and the treacherous terrain that they fly over as they drop loads of water and retardant on the flames. The video footage that has been released shows them adeptly hitting hot spots with the skill of a marksman.

The Skycranes are equipped with a massive hose that hangs below the aircraft allowing it to hover over a supply of retardant or a water basin and suck up to 2,600 gallons in a minute. Once refilled they fly off into the inferno to drop their load.

And then there are the DC-10s that have been dropping waves of retardant on the various fronts of the fire, setting lines of defense around the flames. These air tankers dropped 487,703 gallons of retardant on the fire lines in just the first six days from the initial ignition. That’s enough to cover approximately 50 miles. A gallon of retardant weighs in at around 9 to 10 pounds so a drop of 10,000 gallons means they are dropping close 50 tons of cargo. Imagine the rush as that exits the plane.

Called Very Large Air Tankers, for obvious reasons, the DC-10s are based out of Colorado Springs where they refuel and get filled with the bright red retardant. When released it covers the ground below with a thick slurry that can extinguish flames and coat the fuels in front of the fires to keep them from burning. The pilots rely on spotter planes in front of them to help find the exact spots where the drops are needed most.

In this busiest of all fire seasons, there are at least four major fires throughout the state with burned terrain closing in on 200,000 acres, there is no way that ground crews could do the work they do without helicopters and VLAs flying above them. In talking with friends in the Napa Valley yesterday the reports there were that the biggest concern for the California was the lack of resources available to attack the vast number of fires.

For me, I welcome the sight … and the sound … of any chopper or firefighting plane over my house this summer. Let’s just hope they stay in Colorado.


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