CONROE, Texas - When a January wildfire in Bastrop County scorched a thousand acres, it was a dangerous reminder that flames can quickly get out of control.
As those wildfires become more common, a Montana company, that fights fires from the sky, is spending its winter in Texas getting ready for this year's fire season.
On Lake Conroe, catching sight of a Super Scooper firefighting plane may be the most unusual craft you see. The $30 million craft is designed to soak wildfire flames, 1412 gallons of water at a time.
Bridger Aerospace, from Montana, owns the planes. The aerial firefighting company is in Conroe, for its annual training, with two of it's CL415 'Super Soakers', a training plane, pilots and ground support crew, to make sure they are all up-to-date for the work ahead.
"We need water to train on and, right now, everything in Montana is frozen," says Bridger first officer Barrett Farrell.
The proximity of the Conroe Regional Airport, and nearby Lake Conroe, is a perfect combination for the fast-paced, high-stakes job that these crews are training for and the brute force they bring to help extinguish the flames. Under the training conditions,
Farrell says their aircraft could be very busy, "One aircraft could put about 30,000 gallons of water on the fire in about four hours."
Watching the planes go through their paces brings those numbers to life. As the CL415 skims the water at 70 knots, retractable vents scoop the load of water in about 12 seconds, before clearing the waves.
"By 78 knots, the aircraft's jumping out of the water and flying away and then we're headed to the fire," says Farrell.
Those fires can be anywhere in the country, but typically in the west. The company is in the process of negotiating contracts with individual states so that, when local authorities ask for help, the planes and crew can spring into action.
The mix of ex-military, commercial and bush pilots bring their experience fighting fires to slow the flames as quickly as possible to save life and property.
"We're buying these firefighters time, because the aircraft don't put the fires out, it's the ground firefighters that do," says Farrell.
The Bridger team expects to continue training, in Conroe, for another month. It'll have them ready for the 'busy season' between June and October. After that, the crew will be ready to attack whatever wildfires they're called to fight, wherever they are needed.