SANFORD — The Dromader M18 air tanker flew low over the runway at Central Carolina Community College’s Emergency Services Training Center. Suddenly, 400 gallons of water poured from the plane’s tank, saturating the area below.
Smiles spread over the faces of the Forest Service fire-fighting trainees and trainers watching the successful run. Had this been a forest fire, the air tanker would have dumped fire retardant rather than water.
The small air tanker circled the wooded area around the Center, then Forest Service pilot Ernie Williams brought it in for a smooth landing, taxiing to a stop not far from where the fire fighting ground crew trainers and trainees stood.
Immediately the 24 trainees, primarily from the five districts in the Forest Service’s Region 2 (Piedmont area), moved into action, practicing the ground base crew operations that support aerial fire suppression.
Some climbed onto the Forest Service’s large, bright yellow Mobile Retardant Base Operations tanker. Others manned two large pumps that moved water from the base tanker to the plane. Still others connected long fire hoses to the plane’s tank to refill it for another drop. The fire fighting trainees worked quickly and efficiently, using the skills and practicing the safety measures they were learning.
“The ESTC is an awesome place for this type of training since it was formerly an airport,” said Hannah Thompson-Welch, an assistant county Forest Service District 5 ranger based in Wayne County. I don’t know of any other college that has access to runways. It’s invaluable for training operations such as this.”
Thompson-Welch is the public information officer for District 5. She is also a fire fighter. Forest Service personnel are cross-trained to assist in fighting forest fires as needed. At the Nov. 1 training, she headed one of the six-person crews learning and practicing the critical preparation.
Ron Hollifield, Forest Service District 10 ranger, from Lexington, was in charge of the Region 2 training exercise. Mark Luellen, District 3 retired head forest ranger for Lee County, served as the safety liaison officer. Region 2 stretches from Surry County to Northampton County and south to Robeson County, including the local area of Chatham, Harnett, Lee and Moore counties.
“Air tankers don’t put out forest fires,” Hollifield said as he watched the plane line up perfectly for another drop. “They just knock it back so the ground crews can get in there and fight it.”
According to the N.C. Division of Forest Resources web site, in 2009 its personnel fought about 3,300 fires affecting 12,300 acres. The Forest Service has three Dromader M18 single engine air tankers (SEATS), all based in Kinston. The Polish-built plane with its 60-foot wing span was originally designed for crop dusting, but its small size and maneuverability make it ideal for flying low over forest fires and dumping flame retardant on them.
Hollifield said the Mobile Retardant Base Operations tanker was a federal excess property fuel tanker that the Forest Service’s Region 2 refurbished for fire fighting. He said it would have cost $250,000 to buy the tanker new, but the Service was able to buy and refurbish it for only $10,000. It holds 4,000 gallons of water plus 900 gallons in the water-retardant mixing compartment.
Prior to putting it in service, planes had to return to Kinston to reload with retardant. Now, the base tanker can be driven to the area of a fire and the planes can load, dump and reload, saving critical time and greatly increasing the Service’s ability to react quickly and effectively.
Training is held with the Mobile Retardant Base Operations tanker every other year. This was the Service’s first training event at the ESTC. The trainers and trainees were impressed with the facility.
“The ESTC is a good, central location for the Forest Service’s Region 2,” Hollifield said. “Having a runway available without having to compete with other planes is invaluable. We hope to identify the ESTC as a place where Forest Service firefighters could base if a wildfire broke out in this area.”
For more information about Central Carolina Community College’s Emergency Services Training Center, go online to www.cccc.edu/estc
or call (919) 776-5601. For more information about the N.C. Forest Service, go to www.dfr.nc.gov