Fighting fires from the sky

Mission systems operator Joe Moreng stands in front of the plane he uses to detect forest fires.

by Libby James

photo by Libby James

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Jesse Moreng loves and takes pride in his work as a firefighter. He’s been at it for 16 years.

“I’m embedded in the firefighting service,” Moreng says. His first 12 years found him as part of a hotshot crew that traveled all over the West fighting fires. For the last four years, he’s only rarely been on the front lines. These days, he attacks from the air, identifying fires when they are small and manageable. As an airborne mission systems operator for the Colorado Department of Safety, Fire Prevention, and Control division, he has a critical role in the business of fighting fires.

“This is my office chair,” Moreng explains as he welcomes me into a PC 12 Pilatus aircraft housed in a state-of-the-art hangar at the Centennial Airport in Englewood. The plane is identified by the words, “Colorado Department of Public Safety” on its body and FIRE emblazoned on its tail. It sits on a gleaming white floor in a brightly lighted space so clean and new-looking that it is reminiscent of an operating room. Moreng gestures to a comfortable seat behind the pilot’s spot in the eight-passenger plane where he does his work. In front of his seat, there’s a screen on which he downloads images relayed from a sophisticated, revolving, infrared, heat-responsive camera that emerges from the belly of the plane with the push of a button. A second seat across the aisle is for a second mission systems operator. These firefighters work in pairs.

They are part of a specialized team charged with the early detection of fires across the state. Thanks to technology developed by the U.S. military, this band of airborne firefighters has been able to make an enormous difference preventing fires and in the hard and dangerous work of fighting them. Each member has years of firefighting experience combined with the ability to understand and operate high tech equipment.

In addition to detecting fires when they are as small as a single tree that has been ignited by a streak of lightning, they are able to pinpoint tiny hot spots ignited by windblown embers during a large, active fire. The information can be transmitted to those fighting the fire on the ground within seconds. The infrared camera is capable of identifying problem areas from miles away. They show up as white spots on the screen that Moreng monitors.

This firefighting team also is available to take part in search-and-rescue operations, assisting in the search for hikers lost in the mountains and occupants of vehicles stranded by winter blizzards. Their fire management duties span the state and sometimes extend to operations near Colorado’s borders in Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. The team cooperates with local and federal entities as needed and during the fire season often has a plane stationed in a fire-prone area of the state.

The two planes in service are owned by the state of Colorado and piloted and maintained by Bode Aviation. Pilot Darren Gibbs helps to power up the plane’s camera so that I can see it in action. There’s an obvious camaraderie between this pilot and firefighter. It takes training and skill to maneuver a plane in a fire zone. Air routes are restricted and pilots must be constant touch with authorities to make sure they are not violating the rules of the highways in the sky that often change rapidly in fire zones. Most flights are conducted 8,000 to 10,000 feet off the ground.

The year-round team based at Centennial Airport consists of five mission system operators and expands to twice that number during the fire season when operators work staggered shifts up to 14 hours at a time. Off-season 10-hour shifts are staggered to ensure that the operation is fully covered at all times.

There is always plenty of work to do. Off-season duties include maintaining equipment and interviewing for additional mission system operators for the upcoming fire season. The team is busy installing upgrades to the communications system to enhance efficiency in preparation for the 2019 fire season.

Colorado is one of the first states to support a full-fledged airborne firefighting operation. Moreng explained that the inspiration for the team grew out of the devastating 2012 fire season in Colorado. It became obvious that better detection methods were needed. California is in the process of creating a similar operation.

Moreng knew, from the time he was a kid growing up near Waverly in rural Northern Colorado, that he wanted a career in the outdoors. Right out of high school, he got involved with fighting fires, and it wasn’t long before he enrolled at Colorado State University to earn a degree in forestry. His years of on-the-ground firefighting combined with experience in his current job has given him a unique and expansive knowledge of the terrain of his home state, from the ground and from the air. His career has allowed him to stay faithful to his determination to pursue his life’s work in the outdoors.