In wildland firefighting parlance, it’s simply called “bucket work.” That’s the term used to describe one of the jobs helicopters perform while fighting wildfires – dropping super-sized buckets of water on fires to douse flames and hot spots.
The three helicopters assigned to the Munson Creek Fire 50 miles east of Fairbanks near Chena Hot Springs are being used for multiple tasks – ferrying crews of firefighters to the fireline, delivering supplies to the field, performing reconnaissance flights – but bucket work has been one of the primary missions the past two days. With the spike in fire activity due to warmer, drier, sunnier weather, water drops are being used to keep parts of the fire in check so it doesn’t gain momentum and make a run toward dozens of cabins 2-3 miles away along Chena Hot Springs Road between mileposts 52-55.
Yesterday, two helicopters made more than 110 water drops totaling almost 33,000 gallons of water on two parts of the fire, one in the northeast corner east of Chena Hot Springs Resort and one in the northwest corner west of Bearpaw Butte, said Munson Creek Fire helibase manager Tom Kennedy. The ships are busy doing bucket work in those two areas again today, he said.
“They’re moving a lot of equipment and pumps around, doing recons and dropping a lot of buckets,” he said Sunday afternoon.
The buckets are suspended from the helicopter by a cable and come in different sizes, depending on the payload capacity of the helicopter they are attached to. Most of the buckets being used on the Munson Creek Fire are in the 300-gallon range. The pilot hovers over a pond, lake or river, dips the collapsible bucket to fill it with water and delivers it to hot spots identified by firefighters on the ground or by other aircraft flying overhead. The buckets are equipped with a release valve on the bottom that is controlled by the helicopter pilot from inside the ship.