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Archive for Monday, February 12, 2007

Crop dusters seek role in fighting wildfires

February 12, 2007

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— As rural firefighters throughout Kansas look ahead to wildfire season, John "Dusty" Dowd hopes they'll include crop dusters in their contingency plans.

Dowd, a crop duster himself and owner of Syracuse Flying Service Inc., has been working for more than eight years to get fire departments to understand the role that agricultural aviation can play in dousing and suppressing wildfires in open lands.

Now, Dowd and the Kansas Agricultural Aviation Association have formed the Wildfire Aerial Suppression Program - WASP, for short - which conducted its first committee meeting recently in Garden City.

Dowd sent informational packets a year ago to rural-county fire chiefs in all 105 counties, providing them with a list and map of crop dusters they could contact in case of a wildfire. But there's still much to be done, he said, to educate firefighters about the new program and to train pilots in dropping water on fires.

The program currently has 34 pilots - all but four of them in western Kansas - who are willing to fly in different areas of the state to aid firefighters.

"We don't replace ground people," Dowd said of the program. "That's not the intent."

Most of the pilots who attended the Garden City meeting have 500-gallon airplanes. Such capacity means a plane would need only about 12 seconds to douse and cool a fire with a path about 60 feet wide by a half-mile long, Dowd said.

Then, said Hamilton County Fire Chief Ed Baker, ground fire crews would come in to "mop up" the fire and take care of areas still smoldering. Baker has called on Dowd and other pilots in the past to help quell fires.

And if the upcoming spring and summer are anything like last year's, more counties might do so in 2007.

Sparked mostly by lightning in tinder-dry areas, wildfires struck Kansas grasslands unusually early in 2006. A storm that hit Hamilton County in late May sparked more than a dozen fires that blackened an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 acres of mostly idle farmland.

By mid-August, state officials had tallied dozens of major grass fires that consumed 82,000 acres and damaged or destroyed 52 structures.

Baker recalled one fire that ground crews could not bring under control, even with mutual aid from neighboring counties. So Baker called in Dowd, who brought a second pilot. The two planes helped douse the fire and saved a house and several haystacks.

"There's no way we would've done it on our own," Baker said.

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