Thursday, August 17, 2006

Where There's Smoke...

For those of us in the western US & Canada, summer has another name: fire season. To be sure, there are significant wildfires in the east and midwest, but the western states have a number of features that make wildfires a special concern: millions of acres of mature timber, many remote areas with limited access, rugged terrain, and significant property and population within fire-prone areas. When the West burns, the nation notices. When California burns, the world notices - and the rest of the West looks on with unabashed schadenfreude at the spectre of brand new mansions burning in the exact spot where fires have raged every few years since time immortal.

This season is shaping up to be a doosie. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that so far this year, over 76,000 fires have burned 6.3 million acres. As of today, there 53 active large fires involving a half million acres, prompting a NIFC national preparedness level of 5, defined as "several geographic areas are experiencing major incidents which have the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources." Thank God we have the heavy airtankers up and and running. They were grounded during the 2004 season due to safety concerns, and were only partially mobilized last year.

Fires affect aviation in the form of Temporary Flight Restrictions, or TFRs. These usually don't extend very high, so they affect general aviation a lot more than the airlines, unless the fire is in close proximity to an airport. Besides the obvious reasons you wouldn't want to fly directly over a large fire, the airspace tends to be very congested with many types of air attack & fire bomber aircraft operating in poor visibility. An airport near a major fire can be a pretty cool place to hang out, though - you'll get the rare opportunity to see classic airplanes like the DC-4 and PBY Catalina in action.

After weeks of fire season, the entire west coast has a brown shroud of smoke over it. It's pretty ugly from the air and ruins otherwise perfect sightseeing weather. I find myself hoping for a good cold front to come through and clear it all out. Rain would help the firefighters a lot, too.

It's fairly amusing to hear other pilots reporting "new" fires that have been raging for several weeks. Some of my airline's Megawhacker trips take us repeatedly up and down the west coast, so we can follow major fires' progress over time. Occasionally you do spot a really new fire. ATC has a direct line to NIFC, and passes along all reports promptly.

A few days ago we were cruising up the Sierras from LA to Reno. There's a large fire burning along the upper Kern River, very close to where a 150,000 acre fire burned a large portion of Sequoia National Forest in 2002. Futher north, we spotted a brand new fire just southeast of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Later in the trip, it was still burning but didn't appear to have spread significantly. My next trip takes me back down that way, I'll have to see whether they extinguished it.