Behind the scenes at the Hayden Pass Fire Heli Base
FREMONT COUNTY -
Fire crews had another successful day fighting the Hayden Pass Fire burning in Fremont and Custer Counties.
Thanks to a lot of hard work both on the ground and in the air, firefighters reached 20 percent containment late Saturday night, which is likely to increase by Sunday night.
Saturday, News 5 learned more about defensive work on the ground, and Sunday we took a tour of the Helibase in Salida to see how the aerial attack works.
When it comes to fighting a wildfire, air support is crucial, and it all starts with an eye in the sky.
"Whether its terrain or smoke, we have to have some type of aerial supervision up there whether its fixed wing aircraft or rotary aircraft," said Chad Walker with Garden Valley Helitech.
Several different helicopters are used for water drops, including one called a KMAX. There were only 36 of these aircraft ever made, and they can do things other helicopters can't.
"You can get more precise with the drop because they're able to hover and articulate the bucket to exactly where they want the water on top of the fire," Walker said.
But the water isn't the only thing they can drop from the sky. They can also drop fire, thanks to a special machine called a PSD Machine or Plastic Sphere Dispenser.
This machine shoots ping pong balls full of chemicals from a helicopter that burst into flames, igniting critical back burns.
"When folks can't go in on foot, we throw this in a helicopter and drop some balls. It definitely helps out because it's a lot safer than exposing the folks on steep rugged country," D.W. Cook said.
But no matter what their mission is, flying over a fire isn't easy.
"You can get some pretty heavy downward drafts in a helicopter, especially in a small aircraft. You can really feel those big wind gusts and they bounce you around a little bit," Walker said.
But that hasn't slowed them down. Crash rescue firefighters even do cardio every time a chopper or plane comes back in.
"Yesterday we did 210 reps of various exercises throughout the day all in our gear, so it's exhausting," crash rescue firefighter Nico Romero said.
Firefighters haven't done those aerial back burns yet because the conditions weren't right, but they will likely start this week to help finish the fire off. With things heading in the right direction and a lot of the defensive work done, some of the 800 firefighters will soon be heading home or to another fire.
Evacuations remain the same, but incident commander Jay Esperance said he hopes the order will come soon, particularly on the northeast side where they have the fire 20 percent contained.