Imagine flying a helicopter 50 mph, 50 feet off the ground, trying to drop water on a fire while the fire swirls around you.
Lieutenant Colonel Tom Keegan says the firefighters on the ground are doing the dirty work. His job is to help them out, "Line it up adjusting for the winds in the valley that are sometimes cross-slope or up-slope and then predicting, basically, you're a bomber pilot at that point, you come in, you come low, in-and-out of the smoke columns and the fire flames, all the whole time there's continuous radio chatter directing you towards your targets.
Keegan's been fighting fires by air for 15 years. He remembers the first time he took a Blackhawk Helicopter into a fire for the Army, "I remember being in awe of the visibility and the smoke -the flames sometimes , you know, 200-300 feet and then kind of the aerial dance that is orchestrated by the helicopter coordinator as well as the air attack over the scene and how they're directing the assets in."
Keegan recently finished a ten day stint -first at a fire near a windmill farm in Tehachapi and then dealing with windy conditions at the Mill fire near Chico.
Depending on the conditions, he says his job is to help put the fire out directly…or try to slow down its progress. "The flames, 200-300 feet in some places, might not be the best place to drop the water. You might actually want to work on the green area in front of it or the fuels that the fire is about to consume. "