Fleet of tankers battles fire near Mancos from above

Traffic steady through base as planes make repeated runs

An air tanker makes a precision drop of slurry just above homes in the Elks Springs Ranch subdivision south of U.S. Highway 160 Saturday afternoon as spot fires ahead of the Weber Fire threatened structures. Enlarge photo

Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald

An air tanker makes a precision drop of slurry just above homes in the Elks Springs Ranch subdivision south of U.S. Highway 160 Saturday afternoon as spot fires ahead of the Weber Fire threatened structures.

Traffic flew in and out of the San Juan National Forest’s Air Tanker Base south of Durango on Saturday in support of ground forces battling the Weber Fire near Mancos.

“This is home base to a helicopter, but no fixed-wing planes are stationed here,” Base Manager Craig French said. “They’re brought in as needed.”

He said the base can handle six large air tankers. Two large air tankers that each carry 2,500 gallons of flame retardant refuel and replenish their supply of retardant in Durango, French said.

Two single-seat tankers that carry 800 gallons of retardant each operate out of Cortez, he said.

French, who worked 20 years for the U.S. Forest Service in Sequoia National Forest before transferring to Durango about a year ago, has about 30 years with the agency, counting seasonal work.

In between telephone calls and his other duties, French explained the air-attack hierarchy that exists for aircraft over a fire.

A seasoned firefighter runs the show, orbiting about 2,500 feet above the ground in what French called a flying control center.

Air tankers queuing up to make a drop fly at 1,500 feet above ground as they stand by, he said.

The tanker maneuvering to make a drop is about 1,000 feet above ground but will dump its load at 200 to 300 feet. Helicopters fly at a maximum of 500 feet above the ground, French said.

Aircraft dropping slurry or water fly assigned altitudes and routes.

A single-seat tanker flown by Mike Conlee arrived about 11 a.m. Saturday from Cańon City where he had been assigned to the Springer Fire in Pike National Forest and the Parkdale Canyon Fire in the Royal Gorge.

Conlee isn’t scheduled to go the Weber Fire but will remain at the air tanker base to be available for a new fire, French said.

“We pay for housing for pilots and mechanics and we feed them, too, as long as they’re on the fire,” French said. “Otherwise, they’re on their own.”

daler@durangoherald.com

A turbo prop firefighting air tanker returns to San Juan National Forest’s Durango Air Tanker Base after delivering a load to the Weber Fire in Mancos on Saturday morning. Enlarge photo

DALE RODEBAUGH/Durango Herald

A turbo prop firefighting air tanker returns to San Juan National Forest’s Durango Air Tanker Base after delivering a load to the Weber Fire in Mancos on Saturday morning.