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Western Wildfires – Summer 2013

It’s another year of wildfires in the American West, not unusual but headline grabbing for sure. We’ve just returned from our third annual trip to Afton, Wyoming, home of Aviat and birthplace of our very own Fire Horse Husky! And it’s the second year for smoky transits across Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Montana. California makes big headlines for their raging Rim Fire at Yosemite, while Oregon and Utah also do battle with Vulcan.

After refueling at Pocatello, Idaho, I flew north toward Salmon, Idaho, over Craters of the Moon National Monument. Big Southern Butte is one of the largest lava domes on earth, a coalescing of two domes rising 2500 feet above the surface west of Idaho Falls. Take a look as seen from 12,500’ MSL. When I’m shooting my husband flies, otherwise I’d rather be flying than almost anything else.

Notice the band of grey-brown band above the horizon and at the same approximate altitude as we are. Dense smoke makes aerial photography more time-consuming because filtering and color adjustments are required in post-production. Only afterward could I see the scene as clearly as you can here! [To see what I mean, hover your mouse over the image. That’s what it looked like straight out of the camera.] One trick is to use blending modes in several layers—Darken and Multiply work well for mid-to-dark tones while Overlay and Soft Light often work for mid-to-lighter tones—and then paint-in the effect where you want it while varying opacity. Experiment to find what gives you the best result from each image. Yes, you will need a photo editing program like Photoshop or Topaz FXLab. Hover your mouse to see the original, unretouched.

A rugged, back country taildragger like our Husky can land almost anywhere. It’s a 200 horsepower “pack leader” that’s made for short fields and rugged terrain. There’s a rough strip (U46) northwest of the Big Southern Butte that gives ready access to climbing, hiking and mountaineering as well as amazing views of the Snake River plain and the Rocky Mountains. We’ll save it for another trip in sky clear conditions.

A week later we landed for fuel at Glacier National Park north of Kalispell in western Montana to find a pair of airtankers on the apron at the Glacier Jet Center. It’s a Canadair CL-215 firefighting flying boat designed to operate in the heavy winds and gusts found over forest fires. As for the skilled pilots who fly them, it’s a career for the bold and the brave as it takes mad flying skills while navigating perilously close to active fires, rising thermal currents, and thick smoke.

Amphibious aircraft like this are water bombers called Scoopers for the efficient way they deliver their payload of up to 1,176 gallons of water or 12,000 pounds of foams, gels, or retardant chemicals. Despite their size and 20,000 pound empty weight they are capable short takeoff and landing aircraft. This Scooper was built in 1986 and is owned by a company in Arizona on duty in the summer of 2013 to fight wildfires in West Yellowstone and the Shoshone and Flathead National Forests.