HELENA — Most people in Montana know the sight and sound of a DC-10 aircraft as it either heads toward a fire or is over one dropping fire retardant to help ground crews by slowing the spread.
Just east of the Helena Airport sits the United States Forest Service fire airbase where 10 tanker aircraft lay in wait, ready to respond at a moment's notice to respond to fires anywhere in Montana and in various places around the country.
RK Smithley, one of the fire captains for 10 Tanker that's currently stationed in Helena, flew commercially for over 30 years before joining the aerial firefighting side of piloting just under a decade ago. Smithley describes the DC-10 as, "a fully loaded fuel tanker on the bottom airplane," capable of holding 9,400 gallons, or 85,000 pounds, of fire retardant and while the crew has the capability to dump the entirety of the load, they usually are making several passes at fires using a targeted approach.
"People think once we open these doors, everything is coming out. This system is so capable that we can do six or seven drops out of a single load. Depending on what the ground firefighters need and the aerial supervision wants us to do with it," said Smithley.
While it's commonly thought that aerial fire units are there to help put out fires, Smithley says that's a common misconception by the public. While 10 Tanker crews dropping retardant is a vital part of fire suppression, Smithley says it's equally important to work in tandem with crews on the ground to truly get a foothold against the fire they are working on.
"We're building walls around fires, we're not extinguishing. That's for the ground guys and gals to get a hold of. We're building walls to stop or at least slow, the progress of the fire so that they can get in there with the heavy equipment. Bulldozers, handlines, all the tools that they use," said Smithley. "We're really assisting them to build a wall around the fire as our main priority. Plus, obviously, structure protection, when that's called for. It's important to lay heavy return lines to stop the fire from spreading into the structures at hand," said Smithley.
In early August, residents of the Helena area got a good glimpse of what DC-10's are capable of as 10 Tanker crews responded to the Matt Staff Fire, which burned nearly 1,600 acres just west of Canyon Ferry Reservoir. While the planes and crews were ready at the near drop of a hat to respond to fires like the Elmo and Matt Staff fires, the USFS's contract with 10 Tanker runs for the height of the fire season barring an exceptional year like 2021 where nearly one million acres in Montana were burned.
"We have contracts that go from early July through September, and this can be extended if needed if the fire year warrants. But I'd say our most active seasons have planes on this base are between July and September," said Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest spokesperson Chiara Cipriano.
Smithley said while the job he and other 10 Tanker personnel do is tough, with long hours and stressful situations, he says they know it's a vital job and he's thankful that he gets to do it.
"We really love serving the states that were in at the time — the people below us is not lost on us when we're working fire. Obviously, our job is to protect lives and property and lay retardant lines to help the ground firefighters to the maximum benefit that we can," said Smithley. "It's very gratifying when we're saving houses, for example, is obviously a very important thing to be doing."