Sky crews battle Black Hills fireThe majority of the aerial fight is conducted by the South Dakota National Guard’s Aviation Support Unit in Blackhawk UH-60 helicopters equipped with 600 gallon “Bambi Buckets.”
By: Adam Hurlburt, Black Hills Pioneer
SPEARFISH — Fire response crews on the ground and in the sky were working hard in sweltering conditions to contain the Crow Peak Fire.
The majority of the aerial fight is conducted by the South Dakota National Guard’s Aviation Support Unit in Blackhawk UH-60 helicopters equipped with 600 gallon “Bambi Buckets.” They are bright orange, semi-collapsible buckets used to pick up, haul and drop massive amounts of water for the purpose of fire suppression.
Temporarily based out of Black Hills-Clyde Ice Field in Spearfish, these whirly-birds are in the air for up eight hours every day, flying out in the morning to fill their buckets with roughly 480 gallons of water from a pond near Crow Peak, dumping water on strategic areas of the fire, filling up again, dumping again and so on until they have to head for home base to refuel, so they can do it all over again.
South Dakota National Guard petroleum supply specialist Justin Regan said the Blackhawks have a fuel capacity of 360 gallons, 300 of which they burn through every two hours. At an estimated eight hours in the air, that’s roughly 1,200 gallons of fuel for each helicopter each day.
That much time in the air (the maximum allowed by federal regulations) can get tiring.
This is one of the reasons the Aviation Support Unit utilizes multiple helicopters.
“We force ourselves to take some breaks once and a while,” said Aviation Support Unit pilot warrant officer Gary Dykstra, of Spearfish.
“Right now, we’re trying to always have one helicopter out there available on the scene, so we started early, they started a little later, we’ll come down a little earlier, they’ll work ’til sunset.”
What about water? Warrant officer Christian Frank said each bird generally accomplishes 60 drops a day with the bucket soaring some 50 feet over the tops of the trees. With about 480 gallons of water to each bucket that’s somewhere around 28,000 gallons of water per day.
After looking at photos of helicopters dumping water on wildland fires — that immense amount of water blowing out on the wind in a thick silver cloud before hitting the ground — it’s hard to imagine this tactic being very effective at putting out fires. That’s because that’s not the idea.
“In general, this fire or any other, we’ll cool down fire lines and maybe make it safer for people on the ground — it’s the resources on the ground that are putting out the fire, not us,” Frank said.
“I mean, we might improve their conditions or cool down an area so they can get in there to work it, but we don’t ever drop the water and watch something go out. It’s obviously a pretty coordinated effort.”
Frank and Dykstra have been flying Blackhawks since the beginning, at least as far as South Dakota is concerned. Frank began in 2000; Dykstra in 1999, the very same year the South Dakota National Guard first received them. This year they’ve battled seven wildland fires in the state so far.
Neither Frank nor Dykstra indicated the Crow Peak fire was any more severe than the others they’ve fought from the sky this season, but Frank did say that from a bird’s eye view this one looks more difficult for those fighting on the ground.
“I’m surprised it’s not a lot bigger. They’re making a very aggressive attempt to hold this fire — it’s in a very rugged, remote area,” he said. “There isn’t one piece of that fire that butts up to any road. So you can imagine how hard it is just getting to it. You can’t drive a truck up to it anywhere. It’s a real tough spot, terrain-wise.”