As firefighters work to contain wildfires burning in Idaho and the West, an animated Disney movie opens this weekend portraying what those wildland firefighters do in real life. Disney’s "Planes: Fire & Rescue" isn’t exactly an action movie, it’s a cartoon about anthropomorphic talking airplanes.
The National Interagency Fire Center's Mike Ferris (NIFC) says the entire wildland-firefighting community is excited about this movie. The U.S. Forest Service is even planning educational outreach around it. A group called the Spouses and Partners of Wildland Firefighters is sponsoring nationwide screenings of the movie for firefighters and their families, including one Saturday in Meridian.
Disney began consulting with the Forest Service about the movie in 2010. You can find real life equivalents of the characters fighting fires in Idaho right now.
The protagonist of "Planes: Fire & Rescue" is a crop-duster-turned-racer-turned-firefighter named Dusty Crophopper. He’s based on a Single Engine Air Tanker (SEATs) used by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs. SEATs can carry 800 gallons of fire retardant which they usually drop ahead of a wildfire to slow it down for ground crews. They’re typically used in grass or brush fires like ones that burn in southern Idaho.
In the movie Dusty trades his wheels for pontoons. David Perez, assistant air tanker base manager at NIFC says that makes him a plane known as a fire boss.
“One of the great things about the fire boss is it relieves bases of the logistical issue of having to load retardant,” Perez explains. “He goes out there on his own. He skims water and makes repeat trips back and forth to the fire.”
The movie actually has more characters that are cars than airplanes. It also has helicopters like Wind Lifter and Blade Ranger. Wind Lifter is a heavy helicopter which are used to move people and cargo as well as too drop water and retardant.
Blade Ranger leads Disney’s fictional firefighting team. David Perez says one of the most important roles of aircraft in firefighting is observing and communicating. Commanders on the ground can’t see the whole fire. Aerial observers can see movement in different parts of a fire and give that information to ground crews.
Movie character Cabbie, a Korean War vet, takes smokejumpers inside fires. The idea that a 1950s warplane fights fires today is not a huge stretch of creative license on Disney’s part. The Forrest Service is in the process of transitioning away from what it calls its legacy fleet. These are planes like the P-2V on the tarmac at NIFC designed in the 1940s. The P-2V above is smaller than Cabbie but they use the same engine which is notorious for the amount of smoke it churns out. In Idaho they’re used as tankers not to carry smoke jumpers.
These two planes aren't exactly the same, but they do play a similar role in fighting fire. The character Dipper is a water scooper. She can skim water from a lake as she flies. This type of plane does fight fires in Idaho, but doesn’t land in Boise.
The tanker on the ground at NIFC is a little bigger and carries retardant. Scoopers and tankers are important in keeping fires from overwhelming ground crews. Mike Ferris, a spokesman for NIFC, says they’re especially useful because they can get to fires soon after they start.
“The incident commander on the ground will recognize that maybe he could use some air support,” Ferris says. “Then he’ll order in an air drop and that drop may take out the heat and the spread of that fire and they’ll be able to catch it in the initial stages.”
The Forest Service has 23 tankers available this year and more than 100 helicopters. The service doesn't own its firefighting planes but instead contracts with private companies like Neptune Aviation.
One thing at NIFC you won’t see in the Disney movie is the DC-10. Assistant base manager David Perez says it’s easy to imagine this plane as a movie character. It has a nose, the eyes are in the cockpit and the paint job even suggests a mouth. If it were a person, it might play football.
“Well, he’d be a big fella. But this big fella’s fast,” Perez says.
This repurposed passenger jet is the pride of the Forest Service’s next generation fleet. It has three external tanks that can drop a mile long ribbon of retardant.
Talking about cartoon characters may seem frivolous as fires rage in Idaho and across the country. But Perez and Ferris hope the movie will help people understand the important role planes and helicopters have in fighting fires.
"It's sparking a whole other generation of young aviators and fire fighters that will want to get involved and help out," Perez says.
Follow reporter Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam | Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio