Gov’s Plane Moonlights as Firefighter
September 16, 2015
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  • It’s a nicely appointed plane.


    Small by many standards, but there are some nice, wide leather seats, well-cushioned and worn with use, and there’s some decent leg room, too.


    It should be a nice ride. After all, it is the South Dakota governor’s plane — actually, one of the state Department of Transportation’s fleet of planes used to ferry state officials around. There’s an odd thing about this plane, though — a hint of woodsmoke. It’s faint but distinct and really has no place in an airplane. 


    It’s actually from a fire — a wildfire in Washington state, to be precise.


    “My wife can smell the smoke sometimes,” Daugaard said after a news conference celebrating the expansion of the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact Wednesday morning at the Pierre Airport.


    Ron Hauck, the plane’s pilot, spent two weeks in Washington acting as a tactical air controller for wildland firefighters as they battled one of this summer’s massive western wildfires. He spent around 40 hours in the air over that fire directing large air tankers to their targets and helping direct ground-based firefighters to the places they needed to be.


    “I enjoy the fire work, I really do,” Hauck said. “You pack for two days but sometimes you end up spending two weeks.”


    Hauck and another DOT pilot have been trained to use their planes, Beechcraft King Airs, as wildland firefighting tactical air control platforms. They spend about 80 hours a year training to fight fires between actually fighting fires and are recertified every three years. In 2012 the DOT’s planes and pilots spent 140 days fighting fires. Not all of them were in South Dakota.


    That’s because there are only so many aircraft in the country certified to fly fire fighting missions and sometimes other states need some help. In fact South Dakota, along with Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota, helped start the Great Plains compact aimed helping each state battle the massive wildland fires that occasionally crop up, said Jim Strain deputy chief of operations for South Dakota Wildland Fire. It was created in 2006.


    Nebraska has joined since then and this year the Canadian province of Saskatchewan signed on, too. That’s what brought Daugaard to the airport. He spoke as part of a small ceremony to officially mark the province’s entrance into the Great Plains fire compact.

    Saskatchewan brings access to its four large air tankers into the compact. And that is a big deal to wildland firefighters in South Dakota, said Jay Esperance, the state’s wildland fire chief.


    “It’s incredible and it’s not just that plane,” Esperance said, pointing to the big CV-580A a team of Saskatchewan wildland firefighters brought down to the ceremony. “They’ve got scoopers, too.”


    The province’s tanker fleet consists of two CV-580As, which hold up to 2,100 gallons of flame retardant and two CL-215Ts, which can scoop up to 1,400 gallons of water off of a nearby lake to dump on a fire, said Steve Roberts, executive director of the Saskatchewan Fire Management and Forest Protection Branch.  


    Saskatchewan’s tankers can get anywhere in South Dakota within about two hours to drop their payloads, Roberts said.


    It can be over Harding County in about an hour, Strain said. Before Saskatchewan entered the compact, South Dakota had to rely on large tankers contracted by other governments when they were needed. 


    “The kind of air assets Saskatchewan can provide are the kind of assets we rely on the federal government to provide,” Daugaard said.


    Large tankers make containing small fires a lot easier, Hauck said. And containing small fires is one heck of a lot cheaper than fighting big fires. Large air tankers cost between $16,000 and $34,000 per day to operate.


    “If you can keep a 1-acre fire from being 100 acres, you’re going to save money,” Hauck said.


    The agreement with Saskatchewan goes both ways. South Dakota gets access to a large tanker and Saskatchewan gets access to the state’s firefighters. There has already been some sharing of resources.


    This summer several South Dakota wildland firefighters spent 18 days lending a hand in Canada as part of the compact. They manned a fire engine in southern Saskatchewan for crew that went to fight the massive fires in the northern forests.


    “As you know we sent some of our firefighters up to Saskatchewan this summer,” Daugaard said with a smile during his speech. “So we’re starting this agreement off with you guys owing us. That’s the type of position a guy who knows they’re going to something in the future wants to be in.”