Helicopter practices water drops r

In expectation of a busy fire season this year, the Arizona Department of Public Safety's helicopter Ranger-41 and Pinion Pine Fire Department teamed up Tuesday to practice helicopter water drops in the foothills southeast of Kingman.

For the first time the DPS pilots, using a 100-gallon container called the "bambi bucket," practiced dropping water on three different targets in the desert.

One target was a dirt road simulating a firebreak during an actual brush fire.

DPS pilots also practiced drenching a pinion pine tree marked off with yellow tape.

A PPFD firefighter, acting as ground support crew, critiqued the pilot by radio after each pass.

"I have the greatest respect for the bombardier pilots of World War II," DPS pilot Mike Mickelson said.

"They had to drop bombs on buildings from thousands of feet high.

We come in less than 50 feet."

During one brush fire last season in which they used the bucket for the first time, Mickelson said he had to make more than a dozen drops to extinguish a burning log.

During Tuesday's practice runs, DPS pilots picked up water from a 1,600-gallon bright orange water tank called a pumpkin tank.

Water is supplied to the tank from the fire department's water tender, Mickelson said.

The bucket is filled about 80 percent full, or about 70 gallons of water for each water drop.

Other agencies using bigger helicopters can carry as much as 1,500 gallons of water in larger bambi buckets, DPS officer Ken McLaughlin said.

Working in conjunction with fire crew on the ground, the pilot, looking out the helicopter and flying the aircraft at the same time, also has to maneuver the straps as he releases the water just before the target.

"There are a lot of variables," Mickelson said.

"You have wind, air speed, turning the helicopter left or right, how the water is sprayed out."

Mickelson said the type of brush fire determines the speed the pilot flies in.

For a fire covering a large area, the pilot would fly in faster to disperse the water out further.

To hit a solitary tree that is ablaze, the pilot would make a slower run for more pinpoint accuracy.

"Sometimes you don't want to put a fire out, just to set its boundaries," Mickelson said.

"Sometimes you just want to slow a fire down."

Firefighters can also use a foam mixed with the water in the pumpkin tank to combat a brush fire, PPFD Chief Joe Jackson said.

"The foam allows the water to penetrate the surface easier," Jackson said.

"A drop of water will bead up on a surface while adding soap to it will disperse the water easier."

Ranger-41 can respond to a brush fire in the 13,400 square miles of northwestern Arizona from the Utah border to the Colorado River, bordering California and Nevada.

Mickelson also said for safety reasons it is up to the pilot to call off a water drop during a fire if the winds are too strong.

Kingman's Ranger-41 is on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The helicopter also responds to medical emergencies, like hiking or traffic accidents, which are too far for ground ambulances to travel as well as assisting Mohave County Sheriff's Office in search and rescue operations.

The helicopter, one of four used by DPS in the state, costs about $980,000 to maintain each year, including fuel and parts, McLaughlin said.