Smoke Keeps Fire Helicopters Grounded

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. – A valuable firefighting resource is stuck on the ground, as the thick smoke above Southern Oregon continues to prevent helicopters from taking to the air.

16 helicopters are parked at the Grants Pass and Illinois Valley airports, and pilots are unable to take off because of poor visibility. Fire crews said part of the reason crews are struggling against some of the region’s five wildfires is because they have not had air support dumping water on the flames.

And the pilots are stuck playing cards and reading books until the smoke clears.

“We want to help the guys on the fire, but we can’t get out,” said pilot Ben Schumacher, who is stationed at the Grants Pass Airport.

Schumacher said the thick smoke makes it almost impossible for pilots to see where they are going, and it also puts ground crews at risk.

“You’re trying to keep your eyes on the ground and see the guys on the ground, make sure you’re not going to hit anybody with water, and make sure you see your target,” he said. “It can make it difficult.”

Because of the proximity to several wildfires, both the Grants Pass and Illinois Valley airports are planned to be used as an air attack base. But until the smoke clears, the helicopters are grounded.