Is aerial firefighting worth the risk and cost?

I just read an article questioning the effects of aerial attacks on fires and whether or not they work. That concern is nothing new. Dropping slurry on fires has often been the target of public officials disputing the cost, danger and effectiveness of this form of firefighting.

Slurry is composed of mainly water and fertilizer: water to cool down flames, and fertilizer to encourage regrowth. The problem is slurry alone does not put the fire out. By the time the liquid filters through tree canopies, all you get is a fine mist with minimal coverage. Actually, the intent is to cool down the flames enough that ground crews can move in closer and build line, a cleared area to prevent the fire from advancing. Is it worth the expense? Many say it is not. However, what is interesting is that even though it is not all that effective, every year thousands of gallons of the pink mixture are dropped on wildland fires all over the Country.

So why do fire officials continue to pour millions of dollars into aerial firefighting? Turns out it’s more for the news media and the public outcry than anything else.

Take your average forest fire. News reporters are not allowed to be any closer than fire camp, and sometimes not even that close. This means no spectacular photos to plaster on the TV or newspapers. Add a dramatic slurry drop, however, and bingo! You’ve got some pretty dramatic shots that sell papers and glue people to their televisions.

The other interesting phenomenon is that the general public doesn’t feel like a fire is being fought aggressively enough if they can’t see any obvious action. Aerial firefighting provides a sense of security to people, that something is being done to protect their homes, businesses and forest.

Aerial firefighting is extremely dangerous not only to ground crews below, but to the brave pilots that fly in hazardous conditions. Steep terrain, unpredictable wind shifts and fire generated weather, all make this type of firefighting one of the most dangerous kinds of flying a pilot could face.

Will aerial slurry drops end in the near future? It’s hard to say. What’s scary is that it might take a disastrous loss of life before changes take place. The deaths of the Granite Mountain 19 shook Forest Service policies to the core, and not only is the effectiveness of the fire shelter being revisited, but so is training and procedures previously thought to be adequate.

The take-away here, at least for folks worried that government agencies aren’t fighting fires aggressively enough, is that just because you don’t see planes dropping slurry, it doesn’t mean nothing is being done.

Women firsts: The first American woman bullfighter

Patricia McCormick was so good at bullfighting, an elite Mexican bullfighter once said that had she been a man, she probably would have been a top bullfighter of her time. She wasn’t the first woman to fight bulls, there is no record of who was the very first, but she was the first American woman to do so in Mexico.

Ms. McCormick was only seven years old when she saw her first bullfight and became fascinated with the sport. She took lessons from a retired matador, debuting in 1951 in Juárez. It wasn’t an easy fight: the bull trampled and tossed her around before she killed him.

It’s interesting to note that while many male matadors complimented her on her bravery and talent, none were willing to sponsor her so she could become a full-fledged matador, not just an apprentice fighter. But that didn’t stop thousands of fans from attending her fights, where she refused to fight bulls on horseback. She wanted to stand before them at their level.

Ms. McCormick suffered a number of goring injuries, including a horn into her stomach and a life-threatening wound to her leg. The stomach injury was so severe, the doctor was ready to give up on her and give last rites, but she survived.

Patricia continued to fight bulls until 1962, where she retired in California to a sedentary life of artistry and secretarial work. Life didn’t treat her all that well, and she continually had money troubles. Ms. McCormick never married, and never had any children. She died at the age of 83 in a nursing home.

While bullfighting has never been of interest to me (I’ve always thought it was cruel), the fact that Ms. McCormick pursued something she wanted to do despite the odds, is what is important in this overview of her life.

Women firsts: The first woman to ride a bicycle around the world

I guess the two men who doubted Annie Kopchovsky didn’t know they were dealing with a strong-willed, determined young mother of three,how to ride a bike.
who would take on their bet that no woman could possibly bicycle around the world. These gentlemen probably figured they were pretty safe, because after all, Annie didn’t even know

What the men didn’t realize was that not knowing how to ride a bike was a minor technicality that wouldn’t stop Ms. Kopchovsky. Part of the deal was she had to earn $5000 along the way to pay expenses, and she had to finish in 15 months. Not a problem for this entrepreneurial young woman. In 1894, just a few days before she was to leave, she learned to ride a bicycle. Then, leaving Boston, she hung a sign on her bike for Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company after they paid her $100 for advertising their products. She also agreed to change her name to Annie Londonderry for the ride.

Annie started out riding a heavy men’s bike. Upon reaching Chicago, she decided it wouldn’t work, and traded it in for a woman’s model that weighed half as much. Because no one told her what route she had to take or how many miles she had to ride, instead of proceeding west, she backtracked, and boarded a ship in New York sailing to France.

Once in France, Ms. Kopchovsky again used advertising pinned on her clothes or hung on her bike to earn money for expenses. To cross the ocean, she sailed to East Asia and eventually arrived on the west coast of the United States. It took her six months to pedal the U.S., and she arrived in Chicago in September of 1985, a shave early of the 15 months that was required to win the bet.

Annie Kopchovsky collected ten grand for succeeding, and then continued to earn extra cash by lecturing, and embellishing on, her adventures. She also wrote special features for the New York World for a while. After all the hubbub of a woman doing something so grand and unusual dwindled, she disappeared into a normal life of raising her children. Ms. Kopshovsky died in 1947.


Women firsts: Libby Riddles, winner of the Iditarod

Most people have heard of the Iditarod race. They probably know it’s a grueling trek for hardy mushers and their dogs. It’s been named the “Last Great Race on Earth”. It also was a race strictly for men, until Libby Riddles came along in 1985.

A little bit about the race: it is 1100 miles long, and traverses some pretty rough country. Mushers endure rugged mountains, ice covered rivers, thick, nearly impenetrable forests and tundra miles from civilization. Not to mention below zero temperatures and windchill enough to freeze skin solid. Why would someone want to make such a journey? It all started in the early 1900’s as an important mail route from Seward all the way to Nome, with a number of stops along the way. After dropping off the mail, mushers brought back gold. There’s much history that needs to be remembered along that trail. When Joe Redington organized this race, his goal was to preserve the legacy of the sled dog and what it has meant to Alaskan culture.

Libby Riddles came to Alaska with her boyfriend when she was only sixteen years old. They lived the homesteading kind of life, and somehow she found she had the knack to train sled dogs for locals. Then she thought to train them for her own sled, and entered the 1980 and 1981 Iditarod races. She drew much attention as the only woman, and unfortunately, for not doing well in the races. This meant no one would sponsor her. No sponsors meant no money. Life was tough on Ms. Riddles. She hunted for food, sold fur hats to feed her dogs. She had no running water or electricity.

In 1985, Ms. Riddles decided to try again. And boy, did things ever go wrong. After her sled broke, her team ran off. Her dogs got sick. Two weeks into the race, a massive blizzard hit, and the competitors had to stop and wait it out. When the storm cleared, she had a choice to quit, or keep pushing. She chose to keep going. Another blizzard hit. She still kept going. Even with temperatures at 50 below zero and a 40 mph headwind, Libby pulled ahead of everyone else. Eighteen days, 20 minutes and 17 seconds after she started, Libby Riddles crossed the finish line as the first woman to win the Iditarod.

Women firsts: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell-the first woman medical doctor

Elizabeth Blackwell was only 28 years old when she was awarded a diploma from the Geneva Medical College in upstate New York in 1849. However, it was no surprise to find she had a tough time getting into medical school. Three had already turned her down. How did she manage to get into Geneva? It appears to have happened inadvertently. You see, the Dean wasn’t sure he wanted a woman amidst his all-male student body. He decided to poll the 150 young men, figuring it highly unlikely she could possibly be voted in, and declared that only one “no” vote would keep Ms. Blackwell out. What the Dean didn’t figure on, however, is that it seems the student body thought it was a joke, so they all voted “yes.” I can only imagine the looks on their faces when she showed up for her first class.

Ms. Blackwell’s presence apparently played an interesting role in the way lectures were presented. First off, male students in medical school were notoriously rude and obnoxious—until Elizabeth joined them. Funny how the presence of a woman changed her classes into a more studious group than Geneva had ever seen before. Another stumbling block occurred when the coursework turned to reproductive anatomy. Such an “unrefined” topic was not ladylike, so the professor said, insisting she step out of the room. But protests from both Ms. Blackwell and her fellow students eventually made the professor back down, and he permitted her to stay.

When it came time for Ms. Blackwell to start hands-on training, she discovered with dismay that the male patients did not want her to examine them. This frustrated her at first, but then she dug in and soon obtained plenty of clinical experience, specializing in typhus fever.

Ms. Blackwell’s career advanced when she studied at La MaternitĂ© in Paris, where she became a revered obstetrician. Unfortunately, though, when she went to study at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, she was not permitted to practice gynecology.

It was 1850 by the time Elizabeth returned to New York City to start up her own practice, but no one wanted a female doctor, so she turned to helping the poor. She also began writing to help new parents and about how to maintain a healthy house, among other topics. To her credit, she started a medical school for women in 1874, teaching as a professor in gynecology until 1907.

Ms. Blackwell’s prestigious life took a downturn when she fell down a flight of stairs. She never fully recovered, and died in 1910.

Women firsts: Swimming the English Channel

The desire to swim 21 miles from Dover, England, to Cape Griz-Nez, France, across the English Channel, must be one of those challenges that are taken “because it is there.” It takes a hardy soul to endure the freezing, choppy water for hours, risking hypothermia and swallowing too much saltwater, both of which can be deadly.

When Gertrude Ederle went for this tough swimming challenge in 1926 for the second time, she was only 19. Her first attempt was just earlier that summer, but her coach insisted she quit because he worried about how much saltwater she’d swallowed. Ms. Ederle fired him and hired someone else.

Gertrude had learned to swim at the age of nine, and worked hard for six years to improve her form. At the tender age of 17, she won both gold and bronze medals in the 1924 Paris Olympics. A year later, she was the first woman to swim the length of the New York Bay. She also broke the men’s record for that swim by over 7 hours.

When Ms. Ederle began her swim on August 6, 1926 at 7 a.m., she lucked out to have calm water, rare for the channel. However, that didn’t last. During her 14 and a half hour swim, two squalls tested her endurance with heavy swells and rough sea. Just after nine that night, she completed the crossing, becoming only the sixth person to have done so, and the first woman. To top off this great achievement, she shaved off two hours from the previous record.

The ordeal cost Gertrude her hearing, however, and she spent most of the rest of her life teaching deaf children how to swim. She lived to the respectable age of 93.

Women firsts: The first woman to sail solo around the world

Based on Naomi James’ past, you wouldn’t think she would have made a good candidate for sailing around the world. First off, she was born in New Zealand, on a sheep farm, miles from the ocean. Second, she didn’t get around to learning how to swim until she was 23. Uncertain about what to do with her life, she went to hairdresser school. She found that boring, and decided to sail to Europe. On the ship, she got incredibly seasick—another good reason not to take up sailing.

When in Europe, she met her husband-to-be, who just so happened to own a yacht. In love with the man, she soon fell in love with sailing, too. He taught her everything about sailing, and while he was off in a race, she decided to sail around the world, alone, and without stopping. Was this a smart move with only six weeks sailing experience? Apparently, the logic didn’t cross her mind. Her husband, Rob, agreed to support her in this quest.

On September 9, 1977, Naomi set out on her dream trip with a loaner boat (the Express Crusader) and supplies purchased with sponsorship money. Naomi relied solely on old-fashioned technology for navigation: a sextant and chronometer for figuring out latitude and longitude. It didn’t help that she wasn’t very good at this; she often got the two confused.

Because Ms. James was sailing some of the most treacherous waters known, it’s no surprise she ran into some massive storms. One capsized her boat during the night, and she woke up on the ceiling. Lucky for her, the boat righted itself with minimal damage. Nothing short of a miracle.

Naomi’s dream of sailing nonstop came to an end after that terrifying ordeal.  A minor disappointment, really, considering she’d already traveled 8000 miles without radio contact. The remainder of her trip was rather uneventful.

Settling in Ireland with her husband, Naomi was pregnant with her daughter when tragedy struck her new family. Her husband drowned in a yachting accident. It wasn’t his death that stopped her from ever sailing again she says; she just lost her interest in the sea.

Women firsts: The first woman to climb Mt. Everest

For Junko Tabei, climbing Mt. Everest wasn’t to prove a point, and certainly not to prove she was better than a man for having done so—she just had a passion for climbing. Born in Japan in 1939, she has climbed many mountains, starting after graduation from college in 1962. Mt. Everest, (at over 29,000 feet), was on her “to-do” list. In 1975, she did.

Mrs. Tabei’s accomplishment came at a time when women in Japan were exerting their rights to be more than “tea servers”—which, incidentally, happened even if they worked in an office. One thing for sure, Junko had little support with her planning, along with 14 other women, to make this climb. Many men admonished her for not staying home and raising babies. Japan was decades behind in women’s rights, making Junko’s tenacity that much more admirable.

After a harrowing and yet enthralling experience on that fateful May climb, in 1969 Junko formed a woman’s club called the “Ladies Climbing Club: Japan (LCC)”. In addition, she is grateful she made that climb prior to it becoming a status symbol and contest to see who could hike it faster, younger and even standing buck-naked on the top.

Additionally, her passion for Everest extended into concerns for the degradation of the environment. Trash, urine (enough to fill over 3000 bathtubs) polluting the water for villages down below, and even (this is particularly disconcerting), the bodies of those who die on the climb, still threatens a formerly remote area.  

Besides her campaign to return Mt. Everest to its pristine state, Mrs. Tabei is also focusing on hiking every major peak in every country. She’s doing pretty darned good, too. So far, she’s at 60 peaks and still going strong. Oh, and did I mention she is 72 years old?

Women firsts: Captain Molly, the first woman ship's captain

Canadian Molly (Myrtle) Kool was one cool lady. She loved the water, and spent much of her childhood working on a scow with her father, Paul Kool. Longing to be her father’s first mate, she applied to the Merchant Marine Institute in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in 1937, but they did not accept her. However, that didn’t faze Ms. Kool—she kept trying, and earned a coastal master’s certificate in 1939. Here she was, only 23 years old, and a Captain!

This may sound like an easy road for Molly, but it was not. Fellow sailors gave her a pretty rough time on the rough waters of Bay of Fundy, where she hauled cargo. However, Ms. Kool kept her cool and was known for her smart comebacks in times of stress. When her ship collided with another in dense fog, she was tossed overboard and in danger of being chopped to bits by the ship’s propeller. Lucky for her, she was able to grab a piece of wood to stay afloat. When passengers on the other ship threw life preservers at her, she hollered at them that she was already afloat, and to quit throwing “useless stuff” and send a boat to rescue her.

When Molly married in 1944, she moved with her husband to Maine and learned to enjoy living on the land. She lived until the ripe age of 93, outliving her first, and second, husbands.

Well done, Captain Kool, well done.

Women firsts: The first woman fire lookout

Lookout tower in construction by Volney Douglas on Mt. Wrightson 1929
Since the late 1800s, the Forest Service was strictly a man’s world. Women were not even working in offices until men decided they disliked paperwork. No big surprise there!
Hallie M. Daggett was no stranger to National Forests and wilderness experiences. She learned to hunt, fish and trap, which was quite an accomplishment for a refined and educated lady in those days. She also had a profound hatred of forest fire destruction, and wanted to be a part of the Forest Service’s goal to fight them. Hired at the Gulch Lookout Station in the Klamath National Forest on June 21st, 1913, she was documented as saying: “Then, thanks to the liberal-mindedness and courtesy of the officials in charge of our district, I was given the position of lookout…with a firm determination to make good, for I knew that the appointment of a woman was rather in the nature of an experiment, and naturally felt that there was a great deal due the men who had been willing to give me the chance.” American Forestry 1914
Despite this support, she was met with opposition from other men, who insisted that women could not handle being alone in lookout towers, as no doubt they would be afraid of the isolation and many dangers. “She’ll be on the radio the first night, pleading to go home,” a ranger is quoted to have said. I’ll bet Hallie laughed herself silly over that one.
Of course she proved them wrong, and this spirited woman showed the same skill and aptitude of any man, and continued working as a lookout for 14 more years.

Thanks to Joanne Burch for providing the photo of her uncle building a fire lookout in Southern Arizona.