The Jeffco Airtanker Base, which operates out of the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, has recorded a record-breaking amount of fire retardant used to fight fires.

Through the end of October, pilots had recorded 1.7 million gallons of fire retardant that have been dropped to support fire fighting efforts.

While there have been large ones of note, including Pine Gulch, Grizzly Creek, East Troublesome, CalWood and Cameron Peak fires, that retardant has gone to assist in quelling about 50 fires, Headrick said.

In 2019, the base reported 154,000 gallons of retardant and in 2018 the amount was about 600,000, said Scott Headrick, assistant manager with the Jeffco Airtanker Base.

“The last time this base did a million was 2002,” he said, “which would have been the Hayman Fire.”

This is the fourth year Frank Canino, an engineer at North Metro Fire Rescue District, has helped out at the base. This year’s efforts have been unprecedented.

Canino had been fighting forest fires for years, taking engines into the mountains. As he got into his 50s, he left the ground work to others and transitioned to the aerial fire fighting.

“It was a way for me to stay involved in the wildland effort,” he said. “It’s something we enjoy — you either have that, and it’s in your nature, or you don’t.”

“It gives you a sense of contributing to the greater good,” he said, “and is another avenue of being able to do what we do locally and helps regionally.”

One major difference between the two jobs, Canino said, is the perspective, since those in the air are not as “up close and personal” and hear updates from the incident command and morning briefings they receive every day.

“A lot of my coworkers and friends and family ask what’s going on with the fire, I’m unable to convey a good picture to them,” Canino said. “I don’t have one myself being geographically removed.”

The base, which operates under the U.S. Forest Service’s Federal Land Management Agency, supports aerial fire fighting aircraft, Headrick said, by loading large or single engine air tankers with fire retardant. Each plane can carry between 800 and 4,000 gallons.

There are five air tanker bases in Region 2, which covers Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

The JeffCo base has two permanent employees, Headrick said, and the base is open and staffed seven days a week April 15 through the first week of November. Fire season dictates how long they operate … Local officials, including forest service employees and firefighters with Denver Fire and North Metro Fire Rescue District, are trained to load the aircraft.

Aircraft are on the ground typically no longer than 15 minutes before being loaded and back in the air, Headrick said. The process includes mixing one part liquid concentrate with five and a half parts water

The base has three tanks, which each hold 12,000 gallons each of concentrate, which is made up of fertilizer, salt and a clay product that acts as a thickening agent. Red or pink is added to make the product stand out visually against the natural environment.

Retardant is used to slow the spread of the fire and allows firefighters on the ground to do their job, Headrick said, by protecting features such as roads or ridge tops that give firefighters a strategic advantage. It can also be used to box in a home to save the structure.

On their busiest days, the base was loading up to seven to eight large air tankers, Headrick said, and aircraft are moved by an interagency coordinating dispatch system.

While pilots are not traditional wildland firefighters, they are considered aerial firefighters, Headrick said, who undergo “extensive training and log a lot of hours in the cockpit to do what they do.”

“I can’t stress that enough — do not take your drone over a fire,” Headrick said.

Read more on this story at the Broomfield Enterprise