When a fire broke out near the Menan Buttes Aug. 20, a Rigby man took to the skies to help put it out.
Bruce Spaulding, the chief pilot of Queen Bee Air Specialties, which is headquartered at the Rigby Airport, said that he and his Air Tractor 802 Single Engine Air Tanker is only one participant in the cooperative effort to contain wildfires.
“We view our planes as just another tool in the shed,” he said. “Our job is to help the firefighter do his job safely and effectively.”
Ground crews from Madison Fire District, Central Fire District, West Jefferson Fire District, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also worked to put the fire down, limiting the reach of the North Butte fire to less than 100 acres.
Central Fire District Assistant Chief Carl Anderson said the speed in containing the fire was thanks to a “very, very large collaborative effort.” Firefighters on standby, cooperation from neighboring districts, and the arrival of the air support from Spaulding were integral.
“He was out there pretty quick spreading retardant on it,” he said.
Spaulding explained that when the Air Tractors with Queen Bee aren’t spreading fertilizer or pesticides for farmers, they are under an on-call contract with the Bureau of Land Management to fly wherever needed to help contain wildfires.
A pilot can fly for 14 days straight without a day off.
On the day of the North Butte fire, Spaulding was at Pocatello on standby, where aircraft of all sizes can be filled with retardant.
With thousands of eclipse viewers expected to camp on public lands in East Idaho, the BLM anticipated the possibility of a fire call.
“The potential was very high for a human-caused fire,” Spaulding said. “A lot of people were on standby.”
When he got the call, he filled his tank with retardant and flew 25 minutes north to the fire. Once there, he explained, he worked to build fire lines on the sides of the fire to keep it from widening.
An advantage of the Air Tractor 802 is its maneuverability and lower altitude (80 feet) from which it can drop retardant. For grass fires it drops a gallon per 10 square feet.
Spaulding noted that the retardant is made primarily with water and fertilizer, with clay and a dye. The next spring after a fire, the areas hit with the retardant are normally greener.
“It’s not harmful,” he said.
Any gap in the line is an avenue for escape. With the help of ground crews and other air tankers, a solid line keeps the fire heading in one direction. Spaulding said that hitting the front of the fire with retardant could cause the fire to split and multiply the work.
After dropping more than 1,000 gallons of retardant on the fire, Spaulding’s work was done, and he was soon off to drought-stricken Montana to fight wildfires.
His son Richard Spaulding is also a Single Engine Air Tanker pilot, and was as of Aug. 22 working the skies in Wyoming.
Bruce said that the most memorable fires he’s fought have been with his son, working with his family from the air to keep ground crews safe and make their jobs more effective.