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O.D.F. Recon Flights to Spot Smoke

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MEDFORD, Ore. — It’s been two days since thunderstorms moved through southern Oregon and although time has passed, lightning strikes still smolder and sometimes the best way to get a view of the smokes, is from  6,000 feet.

“They’ve got a smoke report up Tolman Creek in Ashland, and we’re going to go fly over it and get a lat and long for the ground folks,” said Oregon Department of Forestry Officer Jesse Blair through an airplane headset six thousand feet above Jackson County.

Since thunderstorms moved through the weather has warmed up and fuels are drying out. That combination allows lightning strikes smoldering for a couple of days to grow into wildfires. New smokes can be thin and light at first making them difficult to spot from some perspectives.

“It really has a lot to do with sun angle and topography features. So, a lot of times we’ll fly a drainage on the north line and then we’ll turn around and fly it on the south line,” said Blair.

That’s where technology lends a hand. Armed with an iPad and maps of this week’s lightning, Blair can pinpoint where to look.

“We can look at each individual down strike on our map and fly to those specific areas and get real detailed flight paths figured out,” said Blair.

Weather plays a role in how the pilots scour the area. Low lying clouds shortly after thunderstorms mean flying beneath them, but above hazards.

“We can only fly in so far and have enough pace to make a U-turn and fly back out safely without hitting anything,” said Pilot Jeff Nielsen.

Each fire season and each flight is different but flights after storms are steady. The Oregon Department of Forestry will continue the reconnaissance flights every day until there are three consecutive days with no smoke.