COLLEGE STATION, Texas — As Elic Kirby ducks into the cockpit of his “Super Scooper,” he doesn’t know where the flames may fly him next. His bags stay packed in the hollow, hybrid floating aircraft, ready to follow the latest sign of smoke anywhere from College Station to Canada.
“Most people don’t love flying into smoke and fires and all that,” he said. “I like doing stuff that’s challenging. Not that it’s, you know, a particularly hard job.”
A common observer may disagree with that humble assessment. What Kirby describes as a normal day at the office entails flying low through turbulent smoke screens, skimming lake surfaces at 100 miles per hour to scoop up 1,600 gallons of water in just ten seconds, then dousing flames from above and returning for more — often up to one hundred times a day.
“It’s fun. I hate to say that, you know, you’re fighting fires, you’re trying to protect people, property, whatever the mission is. But honestly, it can be fun at times. You have 5,000 horses and she likes using them. It’s a good time,” he said, referencing the Canadair CL-215.
That’s one of 132 aircraft the Texas A&M Forest Service deployed last year to quell wildfires across the state and the continent. This year, first responders have fought almost 2,800 wildfires around Texas. That is pacing far behind last year’s 12,411 wildfires, but the pace is picking up during this extraordinarily hot, dry summer.
“We’ve seen significant increase in our activity level,” Texas A&M Forest Service’s Erin O’Connor said. “Our conditions have just continued to deteriorate over time. And so things just get drier, it stays hot, we’re not getting the moisture. Just the conditions are perfect for a wildfire ignition.”
The service anticipates wildfire risk to remain high as long as drought and extreme heat persist.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 191 Texas counties on Friday, Aug. 11, citing the “imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property” in three-fourths of the state.
The Forest Service urges Texans to act with caution.
“Our conditions are not going to get better for the foreseeable future. We really need everybody to be cautious. We need everyone’s help to help us prevent wildfires from starting. Just be mindful if you’re outdoors doing anything that might cause a spark.”