When fires broke out in the grasslands of Kansas and Oklahoma after an unusually dry and warm winter, the effort to quell hundreds of square miles of flaming brush relied heavily on the firefighting resources of aviation.
The perfect conditions for the wildfires that broke out in March set off blazes that burned almost 600 square miles of grasslands, reported news media. The largest Kansas fire was the biggest recorded there, a state weather expert said, calling it the largest fire east of the Rocky Mountains in the last 20 years.
Some relief came around Easter with welcomed snowfall, helping the effort as the Kansas National Guard teamed with volunteer firefighters to attack the huge Anderson Creek fire, using four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
“We were fortunate enough to have the National Guard aircraft mobilize to help out here on the Anderson Creek fire—Kansas side,” Mark Masters, fire operations director of the Kansas Forest Service Incident Management Team, said in an article posted on the unit’s website.
The Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission credited general aviation airports across the state with keeping the firefighting aircraft flying—noting in a news release that the airports’ “modern and well-maintained infrastructure” was a primary reason the firefighters could effectively attack the blazes.
Vic Bird, director of the aeronautics commission, said he was pleased with how the state’s airport system was helping emergency response teams.
“Our state system of airports can play a crucial role in emergency situations, and we have witnessed that very thing over the last two months with the many wildfires across the state,” he said. “There are 43 airports in our system with runways long enough to handle the majority of aircraft used for emergencies. That would not be possible, however, without the support and commitment from the Governor and our state lawmakers who understand the value of our airports and what they mean to local communities.”
State Sen. Bryce Marlatt (R-District 27) praised “the gallant and heroic efforts of all the emergency response teams fighting these wildfires,” many of which broke out in his district in northwestern Oklahoma. The fires might not have been contained as quickly as they were without Oklahoma’s “continued support of aviation and airports across the state,” he said.
News footage showed an Oklahoma Forest Service CL-415 tanker scooping water from the Arkansas River near a fire burning in Cleveland, Oklahoma, and noted the Ardmore, Oklahoma-based aircraft’s capability to put up to 1,600 gallons of water on a hot spot at one time.
Fighting fires hasn’t been the only way aviation has served the public interest during a rough spring in the nation’s heartland. In March AOPA reported on how general aviation pilots and aircraft pitched in to locate and report on trouble spots when flooding created emergency conditions in Texas and Louisiana.
If appreciation for the services aviation can render to communities was reflected in the comments of the public officials coordinating the emergency responses, it may also have exerted an inspirational effect on some area residents: On Brandi Hickman’s video of the twin-engine, high-wing “Super Scooper” making its pass to load up on water, an observer of the dramatic flying is heard to say, “Maybe this is the inspiration I need to become a pilot.”