Mapping Forest Fires by Airplane

Mapping Forest Fires by Airplane

How Los Angeles Forestry Department, in Conjunction with U. S. Forest Service, Informs Its Fire Fighters—Maps Tell of Fire’s Condition

IT IS only to be expected that with the gradual perfection of the airplane, its uses as a fire fighter will increase. The following article tells of the employment of the plane in the mapping of forest fires to facilitate the handling of these destructive agencies:

The airplane, which proved its value as a vehicle for detailed observations over vast areas during the World War, is still a worthy ally in an ever-present peace time warfare—combatting forest fires. Particularly is this true in the Far West, where rainfall is not sufficiently plentiful to ward off the dangers from fire which constantly menace timber and underbrush.

Mapping a Going Fire

The Los Angeles County Forestry Department, in conjunction with the U. S. Forest Service, has realized the highly important place aviation now plays. It has been the policy of these organizations for the past two years to have an agreement with the Western Air Express each year for the use of one of their ships, this for the express purpose of patroling the mountainous areas during the fire season. The fire season starts about the first of May and lasts until the winter rains come, usually in December. The ships are also used to a very great advantage during a going fire, as the following incident related by C. M. Meredith, assistant fire warden, will show:

“On September twenty-fourth, at four thirty p. m. this office received a call from the U. S. Forest Service, asking our Department if we had a man available to fly over the Ridge Route fire and make a survey of the extreme western boundaries.

Type of Map Used

“At this time I might explain the type of map in use on these surveys. We use the U. S. Government Topographical sheets which give the Township, Range and Sections, each section being numbered from one to thirty-six. Then while flying over the fire a very accurate drawing can be made of the fire burning below. A cross is used on this map to show where the fire is burning most rapidly, or in other words, the location of the hottest spots.

The Start for the Scene of Fire

“At four thirty-five p. m. I was notified to get my maps together and after a few detailed instructions given to me just what was wanted on this trip by County Fire Warden Spence Turner, I was turned loose with the final words: ‘Get the dope or keep on going.’ Time was slipping by very rapidly and to make matters worse visibility was reported as very poor from our Lookout Towers.

“After crashing traffic for what seemed like hours we arrived at Vail Field on Telegraph Road, the terminal of the Western Air Express, where a Douglas Mail Plane Type M. 2, piloted by H. B. Cock, was out on the line warming up. After a hurried discussion about the thickness of the weather, we slipped into our ‘chutes and decided we would take a shot at getting through the fog and haze. We had figured that if the visibility was too bad we would return to the field. We climbed aboard, taxied out, headed into the wind and were off at five fifteen p. in.

“AFTER a check of this survey, we found that, in spite of all adverse codinations we had registered a 90 per cent correct score and this correct information was obtained in the short space of one hour and fifteen minutes from takeoff to landing. That night several hundred men were put in on the fire line at the hottest spots and the fire was declared under control the next day.”

Sketch Showing Airplane Making Survey of Forest Fire, with Assistant Fire Warden and Pilot on Board

Preparations for the Survey

“While I was arranging my maps and getting ready for a hurried survey of the fire line we were gaining al‘itude. We found that the ceiling was very low and off to the west the fog was rolling in thicker than the well known pea soup. A pall of smoke lay over the rest of the surrounding country. My fears grew to grave consternation that our mission would spell failure. It was of vital importance that the men on the ground should know the direction of the fire and at what points the fire was making the most headway. It was our duty to get this information to these men that evening for on a going fire we have a decided advantage in our favor at night, that is providing there is not a high wind blowing. At night the humidity rises and the temperature drops except in unusual cases. At night fires are usually reduced to a lower burning point if the above holds true.

“The 450 HP Type “A” Liberty was working to perfection. I thought, if I could only synchronize my work ahead to the smoothness of the motor as it pulled us through the air. I thought perhaps the motor would develop a pain in its innards and we would have a forced landing, or I might have to hop over the side with ’chute for it sure looked like the deck was stacked, hut the motor never paused and roared out its defiance at me. Then, suddenly, we were over the portions of the fire that had been brought under control.

Making the Maps Under Difficulties

“I slipped out of my safety belt, grabbed my map and pencils with a ‘do or die’ grasp, oriented myself and the fight was on. Being in the forward cockpit I did not have the vision that I would have had in the rear cockpit, as the wing assemblage prevented me from looking over the side and straight down. I tried standing up but my ’chute seemed to get into every conceivable position that would annoy me, the slip stream from the stick buffetted me about, and to add to this the air currents over the fire made the going humpy.

“Then Cock, the pilot, took a hand and through his capable and skillful handling of the ship he made my work considerably less by banking the ship to the right or left and at the desired angle that would give me better visibility. Finally he nosed the ship south and to home. It was now very close to darkness and we could see the twinkle of the automobile lights coming over the Ridge and the lights at Castaic. By this time it was becoming quite chilly. However, we soon sighted the landing lights at Saugus Field and after circling the field twice, Mr. Cock set the ship down with scarcely a jar, landing at six forty p. m.

Victory the Result of Survey

“After seeing to the safety of the ship for the night we were met by a car which was sent out to pick us up and return to Newhall headquarters, where I phoned the result of our survey to the U. S. Dispatcher at Pasadena. Two copies were made from the original survey and rushed to the camps on the firelines where they were carefully gone over as to the logical place to attack the fire with the greatest amount of success. After a check of this survey the next day, we found that in spite of all the adverse conditions we had registered a ninety percent correct score on the survey and this correct information was obtained in the short space of one hour and fifteen.minutes from take-off to landing. That night several hundred men were put in on -e fire line at the hottest spots and as a result the fire was declared under control the next day, Sept. 25.”

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