Fighting forest fires has always required huge amounts of courage, know-how and manpower. In 2006, the worst year on record for wild fires in the United States, meeting these challenges has been especially difficult. In the vast forestlands of the American West -- tinder-dry from the summer drought -- the blazes have been hard to reach and harder to put out.
It is only ten o'clock in the morning, already late in the day for the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, in Boise, Idaho, where Hercules C-130 Transport planes, heavily laden with fire retardant, have been flying sorties for several hours. Their mission: to dump the rust-red powder near the Rattlesnake River fire, an enormous blaze in a remote, heavily forested region of south central Idaho.
"It's a fairly large complex set of fires and pretty demanding," says Bill Green of the California National Guard, on the tarmac as today's mission commander. Dropping retardant is one part of a multi-pronged approach experts use to fight this and other large fires - which his aircrews call "gobblers."
"The guys have told me they are flying real low, 150 feet [about 50 meters] over the tops of the trees." Flying at that altitude is hazardous work, but Green says his flyers love the work. "You are helping folks out. You are protecting a home, a ranch, putting the [fire fighting] line down and it's very, very satisfying. It's why we fly this mission."
But raging wildfires usually bring more terror than excitement, especially when homes and businesses are at risk. Wayne Stephens nearly lost his family hot springs resort, called the Plunge, to the Rattlesnake fire.
"It sounded like a freight train down," he recalls. "It was just a deep roar that carried through the night. The flames were going way up higher than the trees and they were just exploding and it was terrifying! If it had stayed that way very long it would have engulfed us and we would have been gone." Stephens pauses for a moment, choking back a sob. "It just tears me apart to think that... that I could drop the ball and the place could be destroyed. But that is all saved. And I have to be very complimentary to the Forest Service for the infrastructure they put in the place."
Stephens' business was saved by 'burning out,' a technique where woodlands are set ablaze in advance of a fire, so it does not spread. A burn-out helps to give firefighters, rather than Mother Nature, control over the speed and direction of a blaze.
Indeed, the fire camps where the strategies are determined for fighting these blazes are quasi-military operations, with entire divisions devoted to logistics, equipment, safety, mapmaking, as well as flyover and satellite intelligence.
There is no substitute, however, for the human skills and expertise of fire specialists like Dale Jablonski. Standing near a fallen pine tree still aflame, Jablonski points up to a ridge where the main fire is growing.
"And we've had a noticeable increase in fire behavior, right down here low where it was pretty mellow a while ago. We now have a lot darker smoke, and you'll probably see a tree torch out [burst into flame]."
To make it safer to attack the ridge directly, the area is sprayed and cooled with water dropped by a succession of helicopters, each capable of sucking nearly 13,000 liters of water in 40 seconds from makeshift tanks.
"I kind of call it a daisy chain, because they are moving in tandem, one after another," he says. "That way it doesn't give the fire a chance to build back up again.
When witnessing fire fighters, the metaphor of battle comes easily to mind. Axe in hand, and wearing a regulation yellow firefighter shirt and hardhat, veteran Division Supervisor Jerry Bernard looks every bit the warrior. He wipes the sweat and black cinders from his face, and offers a report straight from the "fire line."
"It's pretty hot up there on the other side of the ridge. It's starting to really heat up. You have to really watch what you do. And there's a lot of 'torching,' trees going up [in flames]. So it's kind of a dangerous spot to be in."
When asked about the morale of his crew, Bernard responds quickly "They're in good spirits, working hard, busting their asses off!"
This work is both a joy and a duty for fire fighters like William Manns, a water tender operator from Utah, who volunteered to come here. "This is the best job I ever had," he beams. "It's meaningful. It's a job you just stand back and say 'Wow! We did something today. We had a mission, and we got it done!'"