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Inside the cockpit of a High Park Fire spotter plane

LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. — On Day 6 of the High Park Fire, a special group of pilots who fly twin-engine Beech Craft planes are helping crews both on the ground and in the air fight the blaze.

One crew took our cameras up with them as they flew to help other pilots and firefighters tackle the fire in Larimer County.

“There are 20 of us who fly fires across the nation,” said pilot, Greg McDonald. “The job is tough flying in smoke, flames and turbulent winds, then you compound the danger by flying over rugged back country. The training is about three years for long-time pilots, but this is work we love doing.”

What they do is part of a four layered plan of attack on wildfires.

There are prop planes that serve as traffic control towers in the sky. They fly the highest, getting directions from the ground crews. They design where the lead planes will scout out the drop zone for both single and twin-engine tankers, flying sometimes 1,000 feet off the ground.

Helicopters then fly the lowest. Drawing water from lakes, they drop their loads directly on the fire. The systems works well as long as smoke lifts giving the aerial attack a chance to douse water and retardant on the fire.

These pilots fly three hour missions in two planes owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The tankers are privately owned and are from both Canada and the U.S.

While McDonald and the three other pilots are working the High Park Fire this week, they are only a phone call away from heading to another event. This year, the odds are they will be getting plenty of flying time as fires are breaking out throughout the mountain west.