An epic and devastating late-summer wildfire outbreak across the West has charred millions of acres and claimed dozens of lives in several states. Firefighters on the ground and in the air faced challenging conditions and lethal hazards, some losing their own lives as they worked to protect people, homes, and property, including at least one airplane factory.
Among the lives lost, two firefighting pilots were killed in a collision of single-engine air tankers fighting a fire in Nevada on July 30, according to a preliminary report from the NTSB. Van’s Aircraft temporarily shut down the firm’s Oregon factory on September 11 as a major fire approached within 20 miles of Aurora State Airport, where the company is based. Several firefighting helicopters were also based there, supporting suppression efforts. Operations at Van’s resumed on September 15 after fire crews managed to slow that fire’s advance enough to give the company confidence workers could safely return to their jobs, if not to their own homes.
“The fire progression has slowed significantly, which is good,” said Greg Hughes, who handles media and marketing for Van’s, in a telephone interview September 15. Rain had not yet arrived, but “the big difference now is, the winds aren’t blowing.”
There was a tradeoff, however. Calmer winds allowed smoke to hang heavily over the ravaged landscape, limiting visibility to a quarter-mile or even less, temporarily grounding the air attack.
A few days before, the winds had been “howling,” driving fires rapidly across tinder-dry vegetation and consuming homes and threatening cities.
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