Air tanker pilot responds to Broken Gate fire
July 27, 2023
On Sunday in the early afternoon, a fire was spotted in a clearcut above Westport, Oregon.
According to Neal Bond of the Astoria office for the Oregon Department of Forestry, the fire was initially reported at 1:30 p.m.
Bond, the incident commander for what is now being called the Broken Gate Fire, was first on scene.
Along with ODF, Knappa, Svensen/Burnside, Clatskanie, and Westport were just some of the Oregon community fire departments that responded to the scene. They found a fire burning at the base of the slope, including brush and slash from a recent clearcut.
"We quickly deployed our tactics and resources, but unfortunately the fire spread too rapidly and we were unable to stop it there," Bond said.
Watching the fire grow rapidly that afternoon, he decided to call in the Fire Boss, which was the firefighting airplane that flew over Cathlamet multiple times on Sunday, and a Type 2 helicopter. Type 2 helicopters can transport up to nine firefighters and deliver 300 gallons of water in a bucket or tank, according to the National Interagency Fire Center website.
The aircraft slowed the spread of the fire, Bond said, which allowed ground forces to get in and start establishing some line.
"We worked pretty hard," Bond said. "We made an initial run that afternoon and that night. We were finally able to get around it the next day."
At that point, they started to plumb it and mop it up.
Bond said the fire was about 45 acres as of Tuesday afternoon, and about 50 percent contained. They will continue to work on it every day, mopping up and gaining further containment.
"There is still some smoke there. We still have a long ways to go," Bond added. "We will keep working on it as long as it takes but we are making good progress on it."
The rain and humidity on Monday and Tuesday morning helped, he said.
"It allowed us to go direct and create a dozer line and hand line right adjacent to the fire edge; allowed us to get hose in place and starting cooling the edge down and getting that first 25 feet secure from the fire edge," Bond said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Aaron Vince was piloting the Fire Boss that flew over Cathlamet and the surrounding area multiple times on Sunday to dump water on the fire. Vince is from a little town in Louisiana west of Baton Rouge called Maringouin. It means mosquito, Vince said, and is borrowed from Louisiana French, a mishmash of French, English, Spanish, and Indigenous American languages.
So, if you were trying to take a nap on Sunday afternoon in Cathlamet, he might be the reason you were still awake, but he also provided a bit of excitement for patrons at the River Mile 38 taproom and others who stopped by the Elochoman Slough Marina to watch him work, and he certainly delighted me with his tale when I was lucky enough to catch up with him on the phone on Tuesday.
I asked him how he got involved in this kind of work.
"The wrong group of friends," Vince told me with a laugh.
Vince has been flying since 1989. While he was still in high school, he met and became friends with a crop duster. They would hang out and Vince picked up some work, acting as the man's ground crew.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do out of high school," Vince said. "I decided to go to flight school. I went to Louisiana Tech's Aviation Program and thought I was going to be an airline or corporate pilot."
"All my friends were crop dusters and kept sucking me back in that direction," Vince continued. "It's so hard to get a start in aviation. You gotta have 500 hours of flight time and then they tell you you can't fly cause you don't have 500 hours of this or that, and it's like how are you supposed to get it if nobody will give you a job?"
His crop duster friends were glad to help.
"They helped me alright," Vince said, laughing again.
After one year, one of those friends said he was going out of business and asked if Vince wanted to buy him out, so that's what he did.
"I operated my own little spraying business at home for 11 years, and that same friend that got me interested in aviation was now doing fire fighting," he said.
After selling his spraying business, Vince went to work for another company, and was still doing corn sprays in the midwest, and citrus crop sprays in south Florida, when he got certified for firefighting to help his income.
In 2015, he started working fires during the summer full time.
This is his third summer flying Fire Boss for Coastal Air Strike.
"Usually we work in groups of two," he said. "My wingman and I were on that Newell Road Fire, and he had some mechanical issues he was trying to get fixed, so I had to dispatch by myself."
The crew is currently based out of Dalles Airport, and their contract started on July 3, the second day of the Tunnel Fire in Washington.
What's it like picking up water? I asked.
"It's different. It's not like any float plane flying because you are not just landing on the water. Once you land on the water you are still going 60-70 miles an hour," Vince said.
"Two little scoop probes come out of the float, one on each side," he continued. "It's dragging you down wanting to throw you in the water, while you are ramming water through the pipe into the hopper. It takes about 15 seconds to take on 800 gallons of water. You retract the probes, and then you are taking the airplane off on the water. But yeah, you're fighting the waves on the river, then wind, taking on all that weight and drag at the same time. It's a balancing act to get it done."
The only thing the agriculture flying helped him with, he said, was being comfortable in a low level environment.
Releasing the water is much easier.
"There is a button on the stick that opens the gate," Vince said. "We have coverage levels, which means it changes how fast or slow the load comes out of the airplane. That fire was in timber, so I had it all coming out at one time. If it was in grass, I could like slow it down and make a line that I would draw a lot longer. It was in that timber. I was just dropping it all of the sudden. The load comes off in like three seconds."
Vince figures it was about a 35-40 minute flight from the Dalles to here. He stayed on scene for about two and a half hours, he thinks, delivering 22 loads to the fire on Sunday. Then it was back to Hillsboro for fuel.
"I hated flying over the top of y'all but I looked around and looked around," he said. "I flew around both sides of that island, up and down the river. The wind was blowing pretty hard. We look for which way the wind is blowing, because we try to do everything into the wind, and I was looking for obstacles in the river. There were those big pile lines that went across the river."
The location he selected to take on water seemed to be his best option, though some gawkers on a nearby sailboat gave him fits.
"I could take off and still have time to turn and have a straight shot back to the fire," he said.
Vince enjoys his work. They get to travel a lot. He spent the month of June fighting fires in Ontario, Canada, and when their contract ends in Oregon, he might be headed somewhere else.
"This year has been busy from the beginning," he said.