Wildfires have come to central Pennsylvania in force over the past week.
They started with a grass fire behind The Park at State College apartments Monday. On Tuesday, 28 acres in Clearfield County were consumed. Wednesday, it was 10 acres in Burnside Township. On Thursday, a controlled burn in Boggs Township swept into something bigger.
That’s why the Bureau of Forestry held its season-changing ritual Thursday.
Instead of a red-breasted robin, the bird of spring at Mid-State Regional Airport is an Air Tractor AT-802, a water bomber with an 800-gallon capacity that can reach wildfires in remote locations to keep them from getting out of control before ground crews can reach the scene.
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The plane is about as long as a tanker fire truck, and with its massive wings to keep its heavy payload aloft, it is as wide as a ladder truck.
It officially goes on duty Saturday at Mid-State and will stay until May 2. This year, it also will have help. A second Air Tractor will be attached to the Moshannon State Forest from April 5 to May 11.
Assistant District Forester Wayne Wynick said the second plane had been tasked to the Bedford area before but was being relocated in an attempt to conserve resources. Mid-State will be the deployment point for aircraft anywhere in the western half of the state.
“We are in a very good spot, centrally located to state forest land,” said Wynick.
Forestry personnel at the airport were supposed to see a demonstration of the plane in action, but that didn’t happen because cold temperatures and strong winds coated the wings and fuselage with icicles.
Wynick said the temperatures shouldn’t make people underestimate the potential for fires.
“People look out and see a little bit of snow and think it’s OK,” he said. “But in Pennsylvania, most of our (fire) fuel comes from dry grass and leaf litter.”
Even with cold temperatures and soaking wet ground, grass can dry out in the sun and wind in just an hour, making it perfect fuel for a brush fire, Wynick said. That makes the planes all the more important until the critical “green-up” stage, when dry trees and vegetation start to come back to life. That happens in the Clearfield-Centre County area around mid-May.
However, officials said that if the unusual weather conditions this winter push spring back a week or two, the bureau can contract to have the planes on-site longer if they deem it necessary.