Sunday Morning on CBS, has long been one of my favorite shows on television. It has held onto its faithful followers and its early morning time slot means that it competes with cartoons, evangelists (same thing) and infomercials. The show has nothing to sell and whats even better, it tells a personal story that helps us relate to the event and the people involved. Like many of you, I grow numb from television news and its in your face look at the days tragic events.
The past two weeks have been like a constant news loop of the fires in Greece. Wake up to the alarm at dark thirty and I feel like Bill Murray in the movie, Ground Hog Day. The same scenes of fires overrunning villages, our desperate attempts to get enough water drops before the village to slow the assault. The inevitable fire in the houses on the edge of the village, which ones to try and save which ones to leave. And worse, which buildings to drop on or into to stop the fire from spreading to the others. Screaming fire fighters on the radio arguing over which part of town has the priority.
“Drop here! Drop here” they shout in Greek. I’ll drop where I can do the most good, but if one more person runs out under the drop with a garden hose and an olive branch I’ll have to work another area. Like physicians, “First do no harm” is our motto as well. Knocking someone to their knees with 1200 gallons of water as they run towards the the flames in their yard makes my stomach turn. Its smoky, we are the only air asset that can get into and under the smoke on these mountain villages. Sometimes we are the only asset period when we arrive. A village of two or three hundred houses has only a handful of die hards with tractors and water pumps. The power lines burned down hours ago and no power, no water. No radio screaming, just a silence as we drop into the village from the nearby reservoir.
“Where do you want to start?” asks the other pilot.
“Lets save the houses that are not active and then work on any burning buildings that look like they will get others involved.” Ok. Triage for a village.
We have been working near Kalamata (the olive city) for some days. The fire has run through several villages in the mountains above Kalamata. I don’t know the village names, the village we are on now we call “Village One” because its the first one of the day. “Second Village” is under control, we will likely lose the battle for Village One. Its a six mile run to the sea for water and we pass the two Russian Mil 26’s working just above the City of Kalamata on our way down to the sea. They are losing too and the fire is getting down the mountainside into Kalamata. We make two more series of drops into Village One and the last drop is down the edge of the main perimeter street surrounding town. I don’t know what a SkyCrane 40′ off the ground at 50 mph looks like when it drops just in front of 200 people, but this one knocks all the cliff side shrubbery off the hill and takes with it about 15′ of mud and sends it down the hill towards the flame front. Instant fire break folks – the bad news is, that is all we have for your town. The radio is going wild. The fire has got down into Kalamata and firefighters are trapped, surrounded, on a hill top near a house and they have no water and no vehicles can get to them.
Well at least the sea is closer for water to the fire in Kalamata. There are about 2000 structures between the fire and the sea, but first we need to take this water to the house on the hill. Through the smoke as directed to the hill on fire and drop just in front of three firemen pointing at the flames. Good. You’ll live.
The fire is ripping down a hillside orchard and into a green area of the city but we get it stopped in about 40 minutes. Its the last drop before fuel and we are feeling better about Kalamata as we wonder aloud to ourselves about what we will see when we get back to Village One. Its my usual low pass over the buildings to the beach and in the clearing air I can see hundreds of people on the roofs of houses and apartment buildings. As we approach we see them applauding with hands held above their heads.
“Look at that,” I say to the other pilots as they look down. “Your welcome.” says the second pilot, snorkels coming down, speed 50 knots and 120 feet,40 knots and 80 feet, a boat on your right and we are past that buoy,looking good at 30 knots and 16 feet with water coming in and 200 gallons,300,500,……