Firefighting Choppers Take Risky Flights Fighting fires with water-dropping helicopters requires skills as sharp as ground fighters. Besides the smoke, pilots of those choppers have to brave shifting winds and tricky terrain, and still fly low enough to drop the water.
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Firefighting Choppers Take Risky Flights

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Firefighting Choppers Take Risky Flights

Firefighting Choppers Take Risky Flights

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Several large wildfires combined with a hot dry forecast have put Montana at the top of the nation's firefighting priority list. Some of the worst fires have been burning along the Rocky Mountain front, where the steep, rugged wilderness is making it especially hard for ground crews.

And that's when they call in water-dropping helicopters. Besides the smoke, the choppers have to brave shifting winds and tricky terrain and still fly low enough to drop the water.

It's risky business, as Montana Public Radio's Hope Stockwell learned firsthand when she spent the day with one chopper crew.

HOPE STOCKWELL: The danger involved in fighting fire from the air was punctuated last week with the death of a helicopter pilot in northern California and the injury of two others in Idaho. Thirty-three-year-old Dave Bebich(ph), a pilot with Montana Helitac in Helena, Montana, says he doesn't think much about those things.

Mr. DAVE BEBICH (Pilot, Helitac): It's kind of in the back of your mind, but you don't try to let it rule your mind, so - because if you start thinking about that all the time, you wouldn't be effective.

(Soundbite of water running)

Mr. BEBICH: Get that wet.

STOCKWELL: Bebich uses a garden hose to wash exhaust and grime off of his bright white Hewey.

Mr. BEBICH: Once I get airborne, we'll take the crew, find a good landing spot, get him on the fire, and we'll put the water back on. I'll go find a dip site, and then start putting out the fire for the crews on the ground so they can dig handline and suppress the fire. All right, she's clean. Ready to go.

STOCKWELL: And now comes the waiting. Bebich doesn't know if it'll be minutes or hours until a call comes in for his team.

Unidentified Woman: All units, we're looking at township 14 north, report of a smoke, not much...

Mr. BEBICH: Looks like there's a fire there.

Unidentified Man: Heading north.

Mr. BEBICH: Okay, we're in launched.

Unidentified Man: We're getting launched.

Mr. BEBICH: Okay.

Unidentified Man: I'll get the information when you're in the air on the (unintelligible).

Mr. BEBICH: All right. I'll see you on the ground, hopefully - up there. See you later.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

STOCKWELL: This fire, north of Helena, is one of several this summer that have burned in rugged terrain, not easily accessible by vehicle. People are also building more homes in heavily wooded and hard-to-reach places.

Helicopters and retardant planes are being used to try to protect structures where homes and wilderness meet. Hundreds of permanent and summer homes have been evacuated in several places.

Montana Helitac focuses on trying to keep new fires from becoming big fires. Dave Bebich checks in after touching down to refuel.

Mr. BEBICH: That's a little windy, nice and bumpy, and hot, so - but the fire's doing pretty good. We're - I think we're going to get it - this one here, so -got a bunch of engines on that fire now, finally. There's probably four or five trucks up there.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, and the (unintelligible).

Mr. BEBICH: Yeah, they got in there.

Unidentified Man: Good.

Mr. BEBICH: So, we got a bunch of guys on the ground up there, so that helps a lot. It's a team effort. Everybody has their part.

STOCKWELL: One hundred twenty-five gallons of Jet-A fuel later, Bebich is ready to go.

DENNIS (Firefighter): You know where I'm at.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

Mr. BEBICH: I do. All right. Thanks, Dennis. I'm going to go and head back up, so I'll be right back up to help the guys on the ground.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

STOCKWELL: Within about three hours, Bebich has dropped some 60 buckets, or nearly 20,000 gallons of water on this fire, and the job's not done. Bebich has about two and a half hours of light left before he has to call it a night.

For NPR News, I'm Hope Stockwell in Helena, Montana.

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