The Ravalli County Airport supported Bitterroot Forest Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) and Salmon/Challis National Forest SEATs and hosted SEATS from the Lolo and Idaho Panhandle National Forest. These SEAT aircraft flew 174 sorties dropping over 96,000 gallons of retardant. At times there were up to five SEAT aircraft flying some borrowed from Ronan, MT and McCall, ID.

SEAT aircraft were credited for saving the electronic site located in the Roaring Lion fire and for delaying the spread of the fire until ground crews and equipment arrived. How many more structures would have burned without the benefits of SEAT aircraft and helicopter flying from Ravalli County Airport?

What is the difference between water drops by helicopter and retardant drops by SEAT aircraft? The retardant is a mixture of water, ammonium polyphosphate, and a coloring agent and is called “PHOS-CHEK”. This retardant reduces drift, dispersion and evaporation and facilitating increased fuel coverage, wrap around and penetration through canopy and ladder fuel to ground vegetation. Recovery can exceed 90%.

“PHOS-CHEK” retardants react with and alter the thermal decomposition of wildland fuels so that they do not support flaming or glowing combustion. This deprives the fire of fuels so that they do not support flaming or glowing combustion. This retardant not only slows a fire for days, it also acts as a fertilizer to help support new growth after the fire.

A water drop from a helicopter has no long term benefits. It immediately evaporates and the fire is free to continue its destructive properties. Helicopters can immediately put out hot spots and work well with SEAT aircraft’s retardant long term effects.

This year the Salmon/Challis aircraft based in Challis, ID discovered they could fly 50% more sorties from the Ravalli County airport because of the shorter flying times to their fires. Ravalli County airport is also the closest base for the Beaverhead Forest.

Ravalli County has been very cooperative in hosting SEAT based aircraft but is considered only a temporary base and will not be considered for a permanent facility because of very limited ramp space. It is the tightest SEAT base for operations in all of Montana and limits the “turnaround time” of each aircraft. Because of a lack of ramp space only one aircraft can be turned at a time. With five aircraft it could take up to one hour, 40 minutes for the last aircraft to get airborne.

Single engine air tankers operating from the Ravalli County Airport have another disadvantage, a very short runway and a hill on the North end of runway 34. For safety reasons, SEAT aircraft capable of carrying 800 gallons of retardant takeoff with 2/3rds load of only 550 gallons. In 2011, in two separate instances, two aircraft had to jettison their load right after takeoff because of a slight change in the wind.

This year an Aero Commander and a Cessna 210, observation aircraft, were prevented from taking off with an extra fire spotter because of the short runway. Ravalli County Airport is the busiest general aviation airport in Montana. For safety reasons, the Ravalli County Airport needs the runway extended from 4200 feet to 5200 feet and the hill to the north removed. The FAA will pay 90% of the cost to improve our airport making it safe for 100 percent for its users.

This year SEAT aircraft operating from Ravalli County dropped on the Observation Fire, the Roaring Lion Fire, the Salmon Fire, and the Lost Trail Fire. In 2011, SEAT aircraft flew 180 sorties and dropped 100,000 gallons of retardant on the 41 Complex Fires in the Sapphires east of Hamilton. This fire was stopped before destroying any homes. This year sixteen structures in the Roaring Lion Fire but the question is, how many more structures would have been lost without the quick reaction of airpower.

Many veterans in this valley can attest to quick reaction being the difference between life and death. The SEAT aircraft pilots are risking their life to help protect the people of Ravalli County. Help make it safer for them and its other users, and in turn, possibly for you or a loved one if an air ambulance is needed for a emergency trip to Salt Lake or Spokane.

–David Hedditch