As the wildfire season stretches out and strengthens its grip on the West, two men based at the Mesquite Municipal Airport are playing their part in fighting the blazes.
Phil 'Opie' Oppenheimer and Russell Davis are a small but important team that operates under Western Pilot Service, a private air firefighting company based in Phoenix, AZ. The company, under contract to the Bureau of Land Management, supplies air crews throughout the southwest to assist in fighting wildfires wherever they occur.
"We operate under an exclusive use contract, specifically for Mesquite and the surrounding area and we answer initial attack fire calls in southern Nevada, the northern Arizona strip, and southern Utah" Oppenheimer explained to the Mesquite Citizen Journal.
The small airplane that Oppenheimer flies carries up to 800 gallons of fire retardant. He described the plane's engine as a PT6-67, Pratt & Whitney engine with 1,300 horsepower. "I'm the only one on the plane. It's me and the retardant. The empty weight of the airplane is 6,700 pounds. Once we load fuel, the retardant, and me, the weight climbs up to 16,000 pounds," he explained.
With all the fires breaking out around the region, the retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel has been flying a lot of missions. "Bambi and Thumper need a hero and we're just the ones to do it."
Until recently, the Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) plane based in Mesquite would only fight fires in Nevada. A different SEAT operation based in St. George, UT, would battle blazes in that state. When the new airport was built in St. George, it became too expensive for the BLM to operate from there. So they expanded the operation here and now the Mesquite-based crew fights fires in the whole region.
In February the Mesquite City Council approved a request from the BLM
to expand its operations at the local airport and allow the Mesquite SEAT Base to serve as a regional base, supporting the BLM's Southern Nevada District, Ely District, Arizona Strip District, Cedar City District, and Colorado River District.
Oppenheimer commented that "we've done some really good coordination with the BLM under the new set-up to provide a quick response to the fires."
He explained that he can fly at a minimum altitude of 60 feet "but the best retardant application flying altitude is 80 to 100 feet." Flying at that height allows the retardant to rain straight down. "We usually drop along the fire's edge. On a larger fire, we lay a line out away from the edge because the fire will burn into it. That lets the ground firefighting crews to follow up on it. All we're doing is trying to slow the fire and let those on the ground get their stuff in there. Our job is to create a barrier around the fire itself."
Oppenheimer added that "we are very good at structure protection. We get down around homes and buildings and protect them very well."
Davis is responsible for preparing the fire suppressants that Oppenheimer needs to fill his plane. "I do just about everything but fly the plane," Davis quipped. "It's a fun job because of the camaraderie between us and just knowing what you're doing."
It takes Davis about three to five minutes to load the 800 gallons of fire retardant on Oppenheimer's plane once he mixes it in a small trailer. "The trailer is mobile so we can actually go out to different places with small runways and load the suppressant out there," Davis remarked. "That way he doesn't have to come back here to reload."
"It's a service-oriented job," both of them remarked. "Every time we fly, we know we're helping someone," Oppenheimer added.
Hopefully, the fire season will slow down and they won't have to help too much.