Pratt volunteers help fill fire plane

Courtney Blankenship
Bill Garrison's fire plane flew back and forth over Pratt last week as firemen from several counties battled a large wildfire south of Medicine Lodge in Barber County. Volunteers from Pratt helped fill the plane with water when it came in, using airport fire hydrants. The aircraft could hold up to 800 gallons of water.

Pratt Regional Airport served as a water refilling point for a Grumman S-2 Tracker Airplane, piloted by Bill Garrison, as it flew back and forth from Pratt to Barber County to battle the EWB fire that burned thousands of acres of land about 18 miles southwest of Medicine Lodge last Wednesday.

Firefighters from Cullison, Sawyer, and Coats fought the fire with other departments from Barber county and surrounding areas to contain and extinguish the flames before it could expand its path of destruction.

Bill Garrison, Pilot for Ag Air Service, Inc. contracted through the Kansas Forest Service, said he flew from Hutchinson to Barber County to drop the first load of water after being dispatched by Kansas Forest Service the afternoon of March 25, and then he went back to Pratt to refill with water after each drop.

The aircraft, which is capable of holding up to 800 gallons of water, carried five loads total with four of the refills taking place at Pratt Regional Airport.

Doug Ray, volunteer with the Pratt Fire Department, was one of the people who helped fill the plane with water when it arrived using airport fire hydrants.

Having lived in the area his whole life, Ray said he joined the department to be more involved and to give back to the community---At this point in time, he has been serving nearly 11.5 years.

“I have a welding shop here at the airport, and I heard the plane fly in so I went over to just kind of see what it was,” Ray said. “That’s when I found out that the plane was here to go down and help with the efforts down there at the Barber County wildfire.”

Ray said he knew from a few of his friends at the Barber County Fire Department that there was a fire going on, but until the airplane arrived to fill with water for relief efforts, he had not realized how big the fire had actually become.

In a Facebook post, the Kansas Forest Service said last week's fire followed the same path as the Anderson Creek Fire of 2016.

Garrison said he got the phone call to be dispatched around 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, and he piloted the aircraft until he had to stop as it became dark.

Rodney Redinger, assistant fire management officer for operations and training with the Kansas Forest Service, said their pilots are required to stop dropping water after sunset for various safety reasons.

“They don’t have the night vision or anything like that, so any hazards such as power poles or radio towers or anything---and those air tankers, they’re a lot different than like the commercial airliners that have the technology to land and take off using computers,” Redinger said. “It’s all manual and line of sight, and so because of that, we don’t allow them to drop at night just for the safety of the firefighters on the ground and the pilots, of course.”

It did not take much longer, however, as Redinger said he was contacted by the local fire chief that night and told that the fire had been contained.

Though it was a little difficult to gauge exactly how many acres were damaged by the fire, Redinger said the latest estimate he saw was around 5,500 acres.

The Kansas Forest Service contracts with Garrison on a “call when needed” basis, Redinger said, which means that Garrison can be put on standby during the higher fire danger days.

“I’m under contract during the fire season here in Kansas which is from February through May 1 generally,” Garrison said. “And so far, I’ve responded to two fires--the 412 fire in Oklahoma and then the EWB fire there in Medicine Lodge.”

Garrison, who fought a fire west of Hutchinson with his crop duster in 2005, decided to buy the airplane from a museum in Nevada after seeing a need for the resource.

“That airplane, I bought that in a museum out in Nevada but it had come from Cal Fire,” Garrison said. “It used to be one of their airplanes, and they’re the ones who had it tanked up for firefighting and all that, so that’s why I bought it because it used to be one of theirs.”

Terry Williamson, firefighter with Cullison Fire Department who responded to the call for aid, said he flew out in his Cessna 150 airplane the next day to see the damage after the fire had been contained but it was hard to tell how many acres had been affected.

“I flew down there to see, because there’s really rugged terrain and you can’t get down to a lot of the places,” Williamson said. “It was super muddy so we were trying to get to the fire in a couple of places and we couldn’t, so I flew down to see where the roads actually were and how to get around to where we were wanting to get around to.”

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly authorized “the use of state resources and personnel to assist with response and recovery operations in the affected counties that meet certain criteria,” by issuing a disaster declaration for the fire, according to a quote from the governor’s office posted by Wildfire Today on March 26.

Along with the airplane, piloted by Garrison, and firefighters from nearby departments, the Kansas National Guard also dispatched two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 108th Aviation out of Salina, to assist in fighting the fire.