Fighting fire from the sky: South Dakota Wildland Fire practices ahead of potentially busy fire season

HOT SPRINGS, S.D. — South Dakota Wildland Fire teamed up with the National Guard for their annual helicopter recertification training on Friday at Sheps Canyon Recreation Area.

“We have four helicopters and two separate divisions. We have two spots set up in locations, and we use the road as a virtual fence line,” says Anthony Pritzkau, the South Dakota Wildland Fire State Aviation Officer.

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A National Guard Black Hawk helicopter makes bucket drops in Angostura Reservoir at Sheps Canyon Recreation Area

With two helicopters working each zone, the skies over Angostura were very busy.

It’s mandated by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, but it’s also required training for wildland firefighters.

“A lot of our guys on the ground — this is an actual task that they have to do to get certified to advance in their career,” Pritzkau says.

And it takes a lot of precise communications between pilots and the firefighters on the ground to be able to hit their target. Learning that communication isn’t something they usually get to do during the intensity of a real fire, so the opportunity to do it now checks off a huge box.

Between dips in the lake, the helicopters practiced on the Heliwell, a stand alone container used for bucket drops when there isn’t a large water source around. Those buckets hold almost 600 gallons, and the skill of the pilots ensures that most of it makes it where they want to go. Pritzkau says more than 500 gallons make it to each target area. There’s also specific requirements while flying; they can’t fly over major highways and they avoid powerlines and residential areas as much as possible.

“The buckets — they’re supposed to be at least 50 feet above the highest structure, so if you have 20-foot trees, they have to be 70 feet above actual ground level,” Pritzkau says.

Pritzkau says it’s a great day when they get to train together.

It’s an exercise that brings Wildland Fire together with local volunteer departments, working cohesively so when there’s a real fire, everyone’s on the same page.

“It’s just like anything else,” Pritzkau adds. “The more you do it, the better you become at it.”

That training is likely to come in handy as we move into a potentially busy fire season.

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