Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Flying with Fire

Helitack pilot Christopher Templeton on a decade in the air

Express Staff Writer

Photo by Roland Lane

The deuce and a half truck probably should have been retired after World War II, but it was valiantly trying to scramble up a burning hillside and douse the flames gobbling up the Utah landscape. After three runs the rural fire rig made it to the top and stalled out, in the direct line of a massive wildfire.

The men bailed out and were trying to extinguish the flames around their antique truck with a line not much bigger than a garden hose when the Cavalry arrived.

A Sawtooth Helitack helicopter, piloted by Christopher Templeton, swooped overhead dropping 144 gallons of water between the frantic men and the fire.

Saving firefighters in trouble is just one part of Templeton's job as pilot of the Sawtooth Helitack for the last decade. Established in 1963, it is one of the oldest helitack units in the country. Combining the speed of a helicopter with the attack power of a crew of elite firefighters, a helitack's primary duty is to perform initial attack on wildfires, especially in areas ground crews and engines can't easily access.

A helicopter is a vital resource for extinguishing a wildfire quickly after it starts. It moves fast ("We're in the air within 10 minutes of the call coming in," Templeton said), and is nimble, getting in to places where larger aircraft can't maneuver. Its primary role is to drop firefighters near a fire so they can do their work, but it also supplies air support, drowning a fire with water from an attachable bucket.

"You can't say that there's one part more important than the other," Templeton said. "The helicopter alone can't put out a fire, and the crew on the ground really relies on the helicopter as a resource for suppressing the fire, and as a lifeline."

Ever since he was a boy, Templeton knew a desk job was not in his future. Today, his desk is the Sawtooth National Forest and his chair is a Eurocopter AS350B2 Astar. A familiar sight for valley residents, the "bird" can be seen parked on the tarmac at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, that is when it isn't buzzing around a column of smoke nipping at flames.

"I was a typical kid, interested in all things large and mechanical," Templeton said. "Growing up under the flight path to Santa Monica airport, I developed an interest in airplanes fairly early on."

His first plan was to fly jets, not helicopters. As a junior in college his chance finally came to pilot one, but he was surprisingly unimpressed.

"It was really kind of boring, it didn't seem challenging at all."

Twenty years later, as Templeton was scanning the ground for a soft place to crash-land his helicopter, the comparative safety of a large jet probably seemed appealing. Luckily, after five minutes of grappling with a microburst that wanted to squash his helicopter into the sagebrush surrounding Shoshone, Templeton maneuvered to the edge of the storm and landed safely in the parking lot of Shoshone High School—just in time to watch the 2007 Redbridge fire explode.

The incredible skill required to save himself on that day is the result of years of experience flying with fire, but his first time flying a helicopter was not a success. "If the instructor hadn't been there we'd have been dead within the first five seconds," Templeton said. Despite, or, probably because of that experience, he knew he had found his calling.

His first job as a qualified helicopter pilot was flying a news chopper for CBS television in Los Angeles. But watching the action on the ground was not enough for Templeton, he wanted to be part of it. After flying camera crews over countless southern California wildfires, he decided that the guys fighting the fires were having a whole lot more fun than he was.

In 2001, he quit "show business" and got hired by Air Resources, based out of Costa Mesa, Calif. Although Air Resource's primary business is contracting helicopters for movie sets, Templeton convinced them to send him off on a "serious" contract, supplying the Ketchum Ranger District's Region 4 fire resource with its unique mode of transportation.

After a few weeks of training, including perfecting the art of hitting a boulder with a bucketful of water from a few hundred feet in the air, he was sent to Hailey.

"Literally the first thing out of Larry Lofswold's [then the helitack foreman] mouth was 'This is the sixth year Air Resources have had the contract and you're the fifth new pilot I've had to break in,'" Templeton recalled.

He out-lasted Lofswold, who retired in 2005, and fought fire across a nine million-acre response zone for 10 years. Last year was his final season flying for the Sawtooth Helitack.

Before Templeton left the valley to start his new role as a rescue/fire pilot for the Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park in California, he reminisced on some of the high points of his career flying with fire over the Sawtooth National Forest.

"The first real fire I ever dropped water on was behind the Flying J in Twin Falls," he said. "Really windy, typical Snake River Valley day. A grass fire started and was just ripping across the sage." But the first "big one" as he calls it, was above the neighborhood of Warm Springs in Ketchum.

"A sage fire started in somebody's backyard. The lawn crew had had a mower catch on fire. Instead of letting it burn a hole in the nice green grass, they pushed it into the dry brush and off it went.

"We were working the up-slope edge of the fire until the higher-ups showed up and said 'You need to work the lower-edge to protect the houses.' As soon as we switched, SEATS [single engine air tankers] showed up but they whiffed their drops and the fire just took off."

Templeton said that during his tenure, the Sawtooth Helitack was able to halt almost all of the fires they were called to for initial attack. But as always, there were a few that got away. A 2007 wildfire named Castle Rock, which burned around the city of Ketchum for two weeks in August, stands out.

"But we were not the first resource on that one," Templeton explained. "There were multiple starts that day and we were up by Redfish Lake working on a fire. Before we had that one done, another smoke popped up on Casino Ridge, east of Stanley, and then we finally came down to Castle Rock."

That fateful fire is etched in Blaine County residents' memories.

"A big enough storm had moved through and started enough fires that the resources available were really limited," Templeton said. "Unfortunately, Castle Rock didn't get reported until after we were already up at Redfish and then the only thing available for them to send was some smoke jumpers. They'd been on the ground a couple hours before we showed up, and then Mother Nature took over."

For Templeton, and every other resource fighting that fire, those critical first few hours were heartbreaking. "Every time you came back with another bucket of water you were just watching it get bigger and bigger. They just kept telling us to try and slow it down until more resources could get there, but the fire kept spotting out ahead and you were watching it get bigger and bigger, realizing you weren't doing anything to it."

The one that really did get away on the Sawtooth Helitack was the 2005 Valley Road Fire near Stanley.

"We were the first there, we beat the Stanley engines by minutes. Typical, really windy day, somebody had started burning trash in some barrels that jumped out of the barrels straight on to dry hillside and just took off," he said. "Engine crews were working up one flank and the helitack up the other. We had actually put our flank out and had bumped over to help the engines when the SEATS showed up.

"Helicopters and airplanes are a bad mix so they moved us off the fire. The SEATS came in made their drops and unfortunately they missed the critical last drop. The fire hit a slope of trees and took off. Forty-eight thousand acres and three snowstorms later it finally went out. It's the biggest timber fire I have ever worked on."

That little boy standing under the giant jets flying into Los Angeles is all grown up now, and is happy to say he found the best job in the world for him. He plans to return to Idaho this winter to continue his other job—flying thrill-seeking skiers into the backcountry for Sun Valley Heli Ski.

"Fire is probably the most fun I've had flying," Templeton said. "Heli-skiing is challenging because of the environment you're working in. It's pretty spectacular, but it just doesn't have the same level of fulfillment as getting up there pushing a button in the helicopter and seeing the fire go out."

But more than the experiences, it's the friendships he's made that have helped him turn the place he came to for a job into a home.

"I showed up as pretty much a punk kid with no fire experience and 10 years later, I'm now considered an experienced fire pilot. And I made friends with just about everyone from the dispatch center all the way up to the aviation manager for the Sawtooth," he said.

Templeton bought a house in Hailey a few years ago, and while he's now flying with fire in his home state of California, Idaho is where his heart is.

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