Head of the air attack

Charlie Brown, an air tactical supervisor with the Bureau of Land Management, has never worked with a fire out of the U.S. Forest Service Tanker Base at the Durango-La Plata County Airport, despite living in Durango since 1997. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Charlie Brown, an air tactical supervisor with the Bureau of Land Management, has never worked with a fire out of the U.S. Forest Service Tanker Base at the Durango-La Plata County Airport, despite living in Durango since 1997.

The U.S. military fights wars overseas, but the country has another military to fight a different kind of war at home: wildfires.

Charlie Brown is an air tactical supervisor for the Bureau of Land Management. Brown and his pilot control the airspace above a fire and lead in the slurry bombers to drop retardant or water on a blaze.

But before he was an air supervisor, for about 18 years he was a smoke jumper.

The smoke jumpers are like the special forces. A plane drops them off at a fire, and the jumpers have enough supplies to be self-sufficient for the first 24 to 48 hours of the fire, alone in the wilderness with their fiery enemy.

While jumpers operate as individuals, hot-shot crews – the infantry – operate as a team and go in and fight the large fires that make the news, Brown said.

“They’re machines going through the forest,” he said.

Brown originally was part of a hot-shot crew, but he knew he wanted to be a jumper as soon as he saw them.

The jumpers usually respond to smaller fires, and they do whatever it takes to contain a fire, Brown said.

Brown lived in Durango but was stationed in Alaska as a smoke jumper when the Missionary Ridge Fire broke out. He had a home on the ridge that managed to survive the blaze.

“I was busy on our fire, but I wish I could have come down and helped,” he said. “It was eating at me that this was my community, and I couldn’t help.”

jdahl@durangoherald.com