When a wildfire is raging, sometimes the only way to get to it is from the air, and now there is an aerial firefighting company based in Fort Morgan that is ready to take on that challenge wherever and whenever needed.
In fact, CO Fire Aviation helped put out a wildfire that broke out Sept. 18 in Weld County between Kersey and Roggen. Two pilots volunteered their time, skills and fuel to dump 27 loads of water on that fire, according to pilot Kyle Scott, co-owner of CO Fire Aviation.
Scott typically can be found at Fort Morgan Municipal Airport, where he is the fixed-base operator and also the co-owner of both Scott Aviation and now CO Fire Aviation, which are both headquartered at the airport.
Fort Morgan pilot Kyle Scott, of both Scott Aviation and CO Fire Aviation, is shown at Fort Morgan Municipal Airport in June 2015 during aerial firefighting training. Scott also is the fixed-base operator at Fort Morgan’s airport. (Jenni Grubbs / Fort Morgan Times)
“I saw the smoke that Friday and called (Morgan County Sheriff) Jim Crone,” Scott recalled. “He said, ‘it’s in Weld County, not here yet.’ I went to get lunch, and then the New Raymer fire chief called me. ‘Can you help? How many planes can you bring?'”
Scott told the fire chief that he and one other pilot could bring two planes, including CO Fire Aviation’s AT-802F tanker, and help with the firefighting effort.
“Ryan and I each did 10 drops, five out of Fort Morgan and five out of Greeley, Weld County Airport,” Scott recalled.
Then another of Scott’s pilots saw them flying and came and did another seven drops of water on the fire that day.
“We were the only aerial firefighters on that fire,” Scott said.
There were state officials on the scene, providing information to the pilots and coordinating efforts, he said.
“It’s very confusing when you’re out there in a pasture and can’t see because there’s smoke everywhere,” Scott said.
It was really just a matter of luck that the CO Fire Aviation team was able to help that day.
“When the New Raymer fire chief called and asked me to help, it was just kind of fortunate that this airplane (the tanker) was back,” Scott said. “It’s meant for fire bombing and has a programmable radio. It was just a matter of getting the frequency they were on.”
While he had heard that wildfire was not threatening any structures, it was “creeping toward two ranches,” Scott said.
The goal of the aerial firefighters that day, and with most fires, is not to put it out, he said.
“We can’t actually put a fire out; what we do is slow it down,” Scott said. “It takes those boots on the ground to get it out. We cool it down, and they actually put it out.”
Even up in the air, he could tell how hard getting in close to the fire must be.
“Those guys on the ground have it rough,” Scott said. “You can feel the heat from those grass fires in the airplane. It’s got to be rough down there. We just turn up the air conditioning.”
The firefighters used a trench cut for a pipeline to create a barrier for the fire.
“It was pretty cool to see from the air how those guys can do that,” Scott said.
Scott has been assisting with aerial firefighting on farm and ranch grass fires for many years, but it’s only recently that he and partner Chris Doyle got trained for tackling large-scale fires as aerial firefighters.
They formed CO Fire Aviation and acquired the AT-802F fire bomber/tanker airplane for that purpose.
During a training run last summer, Scott practiced dumping several loads of water on the fields out at the Fort Morgan airport as aerial firefighting consultant and trainer Mark Bickham from Salvo LLC of Boise, Idaho, watched.
“It’s different kinds of flying than they’ve ever done before,” he said. “So many people say, ‘Fighting fire with an airplane, how hard can it be? You just drop water on the fire.’ That’s not it. It takes different kinds of flying and skills.”
By the time Bickham was done with Scott last June, the Fort Morgan pilot had the skills to tackle fires with single-engine air tankers.
“This is the company taking the initiative to get trained for when needed here, and they will be able to go elsewhere when needed,” Bickham said. “The reason they’re doing this is to get ahead of a program the state is working on. They’re being very proactive.”
The Fort Morgan company’s pilots were “fast learners” and finished the training with the equivalent of fighting 11 fire events.
“They’re simulated fires, but I put them through all the hoops and whistles,” Bickham said.
Ready for the call
CO Fire Aviation is ready to help when the call comes, whether it’s for a neighbor in need of some fast help or for a bigger long-term aerial firefighting contract elsewhere in the United States.
The company completed such a contract recently after about a month of being on-call for aerial firefighting in Oregon.
“They’re very progressive about fighting fires out there,” Scott said. “They jump on it quick, before it gets big.”
His partner, Chris Doyle, went to Oregon July 31 and only got back the last day of August, and Scott went out there in late August to relieve Doyle, Scott said.
“Typically, contracts are 75, 90, 100 or 120 days,” he explained. “All these are staged where they think the danger’s high.”
That means lengthy stays away from home for the aerial firefighters, who then are on stand-by, waiting for a call.
“You’re there, you’re active, you show up every day and stay until 7 or 8 at night, waiting to respond,” Scott explained. “You need to be airborne within five minutes of a call. You’re pre-flighted, you pump a load into the plane and get airborne. It’s like a fireman at a bigger city fire station.”
Doyle, who is from New Zealand, had worked with Scott for quite a few years in crop dusting and general aviation at Scott Aviation before they decided to try out aerial firefighting.
Now, their company is ready to go, once the next round of state and federal aerial firefighting are offered. They’re hoping to get some big contracts to keep it sustainable, as the specialty fire bomber is not exactly cheap to maintain, let alone keep volunteering out.
“With that airplane, it’s too expensive for volunteer,” Scott said. “When it’s on contract, it’s thousands of dollars. We do that around Fort Morgan because it’s our friends and our customers in jeopardy, and those firemen are friends of mine.”
With the Sept. 18 fire, “it just happened to be here, so I flew it,” Scott said.
If Co Fire Aviation does get a contract with Colorado or another state or the federal government, the air tanker likely would not be stationed at the Fort Morgan airport, he said.
“Eventually, that’s the goal,” he said. “We’ve been talking with the state of Colorado since we got back from Oregon about becoming a cooperating aircraft.”
But just getting things to this point and having completed the contract in Oregon is a big deal for Scott and Doyle.
“We were pretty tickled that we got signed on somewhere to put the aircraft to use this year,” Scott said. “We figured that was a victory to be able to go and help there. And now it was just a stroke of luck that it was sitting here to be able to help at Kersey. Normally, it wouldn’t be here, but if somebody asks you to help, you help.”
He plans to have at least two aircraft available to help with aerial firefighting of grass fires and wildfires in this area next fire season, though, if not the big tanker through Co Fire Aviation and its three trained pilots.
“Scott Aviation will always be here with yellow spray planes to help with grass fires,” he said.