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Choppers help reduce smoke

A spot fire near Elephant Rock is doused with water by a Skorsky S-64E, brought down from Central Point, Ore., to battle the Mud Fire. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).
A spot fire near Elephant Rock is doused with water by a Skorsky S-64E, brought down from Central Point, Ore., to battle the Mud Fire. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).



With help from helicopters, each dropping thousands of gallons of water at once, foothills residents woke up to bluer skies today for the first time in weeks.

After a smoky haze had blanketed Tuolumne and Calaveras counties since mid-September, Stanislaus National Forest fire officials began an aggressive attack this past weekend on the Mud Complex Fire, about five miles southeast of Bear Valley, said Stanislaus National Forest spokesman John Renshaw.

Two type I helicopters — each capable of carrying about 2,600 gallons — continuously water-bombed the burn that began during a lightning storm this summer.

That fire, which covers about 4,700 acres, has been attributed with flooding the foothills with smoke, keeping many people indoors and even sending some to their doctors.

One helicopter was released yesterday, Renshaw said. The remaining chopper, a Sikorsky S-64E — also known as a Skycrane — will finish up today. The helicopter was originally designed for the military, and uses a dangling hose to fill its huge water tank in less than a minute.

The helicopter costs about $7,000 an hour to use, and the Forest Service usually pays about $50,000 each day for each chopper in the air, said JoAnn Larsen, division chief with Calaveras Ranger District.

But Larsen said the immediate smoke relief is worth it.

Three hot shot crews also attacked the fire yesterday, looking to reduce the flames' intensity and decrease smoke.

Mike Beckett, supervisor for Eldorado National Forest Hot Shots, commended the Stanislaus Forest Service for letting the Mud Complex and Mountain Complex fires burn to clear out debris that could accumulate and fuel catastrophic, unmanageable fires in the future.

"I think the Stanislaus is being real proactive," Beckett said. "It's a savings to taxpayers and it's good for the environment."

Suppressing the Mud Fire would cost several times more than the $1.8 million the Forest Service has spent to manage it and let it burn, Beckett said. Mechanical thinning of debris — removing brush by hand or machine — would shoot that tally up even higher.

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