The Old Mill Site in North Fork has been a buzz of activity since it was transformed into a helibase last week in response to the Aspen Fire.
The fire, which was ignited by lighting July 22, has burned more than 21,000 acres of forest between Mammoth Pool and Huntington Lake and is 75% contained. The cost in manpower and equipment to battle the fire had reached $23.4 million.
There are currently more than 1,800 fire personnel responding to the incident — everyone from management to hotshots on the ground cutting line to helicopter and airplane pilots dropping water and fire retardant from the skies above. All the hard work has been paying off and containment has been climbing every day.
Air support has come from across the state and even out of state. Tankers have been flying out of Fresno, including a DC 10 (jet liner) that is carrying about 11,000 gallons of fire retardant per flight. Nine helicopters are flying out of North Fork — seven stationed at the Old Mill Site and two near the North Fork Rancheria Community Center.
All air traffic is controlled by an spotter airplane flying overhead. All aircraft fly at different elevations — the air traffic control plane at the highest elevation, then air tankers, then helicopters. Pilot Ted Bell said the Bambi Buckets (water buckets) hang from a 100-foot rope and drop 750 gallons of water 100 feet above the burning forest.
Every year, from July 1 through the end of November, helicopter pilot Steve Bligh is fighting fires from the sky. A U.S. military veteran, he first got his pilots license while serving his country. Bligh now works for Siller Helicopters out of Yuba City and has been in the business for 35 years. During the off-season when he’s not fighting fires, Bligh flies an air crane for logging and heavy construction projects. Although it’s risky business, flying over a raging forest fire is just another day at the office for Bligh.
“It has inherent dangers, but that’s just part of the job,” Bligh said. “It’s always exciting, always different and a good paycheck. I love everything about it. It’s like any other job — just a little more exciting.”
Bligh’s job takes him all over the country — even as far as Florida. Prior to coming to North Fork, Bligh was helping fight fires in Southern California.
When smoke is thick, pilots have to rely solely on their control. Bligh says he flies between six and eight hours a day, but never more than eight because of flight time restrictions.
Bligh says he works 12 days on, 12 days off.
“Most of our wives like it,” he laughed.
Bligh does not travel alone. Besides a second pilot, each helicopter travels with its own ground crew, including a truck and trailer for maintenance and a fuel truck.
All helicopters are dipping water out of Huntington Lake and the San Joaquin River and picking up retardant at a factory near Shaver Lake. Bligh said the air cranes can suck up 1,500 gallons of retardant in 45 seconds through a “Pond Snorkel” (hose) that dangles from the bottom of the aircraft. However, Bligh said they tend to carry more water than retardant in the air cranes, because retardant weighs more — 1 gallon equals 10 pounds. Air cranes also use 500 gallons of jet fuel an hour, forcing pilots to stop and refuel every two hours, according to pilot Seth Tanner.
Bligh shares the cockpit with Tanner, who is enjoying his second season as an air crane fire fighting pilot. Prior to this, Tanner flew medevac helicopters.
“It’s not too often you get an opportunity to fly a heavy (helicopter), so when the opportunity arose I jumped on it,” he said. Tanner first fell in love with flying when he went skydiving, and has been hooked on flying ever since. Tanner said he experienced a fire evacuation when he was a sixth grader in Reno, Nev., so being able to fight fires flying and impact people’s lives is work that comes straight from the heart. “It’s definitely a challenge, but I just enjoy being able to fly and help people,” he said.
On the forest floor, fire crews are facing their own challenges. They are working together with helicopter pilots to construct and reinforce fire lines around the fires perimeter.
Fire crews have responded from across the entire United States — from Florida to Minnesota, according to Bill White, public information officer for the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team.
“Every time there’s a fire it’s like a reunion — It’s like seeing your brothers,” Sierra Hotshots Squad Leader Brian Grossman said. “Everyone comes from different backgrounds, but you have that same common interest.”
Grossman said hotshot crews work from 14 to 21 days at a time with two or three days to rest before going out again, from the end of April until early November.
Back at the helibase, the Bald Mountain Helitak Squad was offering support. Helitak crews are trained to be flown into remote locations where they are dropped off to fight fires.
Bald Mountain Helitak Superintendent Dave Phillips has been fighting fires for 29 years, but prefers being attached to a helitak crew.
“I’ve done all different aspects of firefighting and helitak is much more engaging,” he said. Helitak crews can do everything from logistics to ground work.
“You could be cutting line and within a matter of minutes switch back to logistics,” Phillips said. “You have to think on your feet. It’s not just fire safety but aviation safety as well.”
Helitak crews are also trained to support helibases, which is what they were doing at the Old Mill Site. They traveled to North Fork after fighting fires in Kern County.
Two hotshots were injured during firefighting operations, but none of the injuries were life-threatening. A third injury was also reported. White said a caterer suffered a broken arm at the incident command site.
Three structures are being threatened but none have been damaged.
The South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team has been in command of the Aspen Fire since July 24. The team is working with the Sierra National Forest to manage suppression efforts.
The fire is in steep, rugged terrain. According to reports, progress has been made with indirect and direct fire line construction. The report also stated that the fire remained most active to the south, near Stump Springs Road and to the east, along and into the Kaiser Wilderness areas.
Minarets Road (4S81) from Fish Creek to Jackass Rock Organization Campground, Grizzly at Beasore Road to Minarets Road are closed to the public. Residents within the road closure are being allowed into the area with valid identification. Recreation and businesses remain open in the Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake, Lake Thomas Edison, Florence Lake and the Mono Hot Springs areas. The closure of Stump Springs Road remains in effect. The Kaiser Wilderness has also been closed as well as 10 campgrounds in the area.