J. Scott Davis, a major with the Civil Air Patrol’s New Hampshire Wing, is shown here with one of the planes CAP members use to scout the state for brush fires. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
NH’s Civil Air Patrol provides fire reconnaissance for the state
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — The Civil Air Patrol, as the civilian auxiliary wing of the U.S. Air Force, has aerospace education, cadet programs and disaster response as its three main missions. But, in New Hampshire, the state wing has another responsibility: patrolling the state for fires. And, according to J. Scott Davis, a major with the Civil Air Patrol, 2016 has been a busy year for fire patrols.
The New Hampshire Wing of the Civil Air Patrol began fire flights about eight years ago. Prior, the state’s Department of Resources and Economic Development contracted with fixed-base operators, who charged more for the services. The Civil Air Patrol is able to provide the service for much less, because they use planes owned by the Air Force and the pilots fly for no other reward than time in the air. The Civil Air Patrol only bills DRED for the operational costs associated with the flight. Davis said many of the pilots consider the fire flights, as they do the Civil Air Patrol in general, as a form of service.
“You do it for the satisfaction of doing it. It’s rewarding, it’s fun, it’s disciplined,” said Davis. “You’re not out there on a joy ride, you’re accomplishing a specific task or a mission.” Many in the Civil Air Patrol have a background that includes military or commercial flying, he said. “It’s a way to stay involved in aviation and to give back.”
And the fire surveillance flights are useful, Davis said, because the unique vantage point of a small-plane pilot makes brush fires easy to spot, even compared to someone in a fire tower. The pilot’s advantage has to do with altitude, obviously, but it also has to do with visual interference. When looking laterally along the ground, an observer is looking through air that is thick with humidity and particulates, such as pollen, pollution and dust. The air is clearer once off the ground.
And, when smoke is spotted from above, it contrasts clearly against the dark ground.
“The smoke is really very identifiable from a plane. We can fly a route and see a lot that the towers can’t,” Davis said. In addition to the location and size of the fire, the pilots can also provide information on nearby water sources, the nearest road access or any obstacles that may get in the way of firefighters.
“I have found several along the Kancamagus Highway, they were just smoldering on the ground,” Davis said.
On high fire danger days, typically in early spring, after the snow has melted but before the leaves have returned to the trees, DRED issues an order for the Civil Air Patrol to scout the state for smoke. There are two routes, one for the southern half of the state and one for the north, both of which take a few hours and can be flown out of Laconia.
“This year we flew 14 or 15 consecutive days,” he said. Though the fire reconnaissance flights are generally a springtime activity, though the dry conditions this year might lead to fire flights this fall, when the trees drop their leaves.
J. Scott Davis, a major in the New Hampshire Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, scouts the state for smoke. (Courtesy photo)
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