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Firefighters Are Increasingly Banking On Helicopters To Battle Wildfires In Central Texas

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for KUT
Blackhawk helicopters were commissioned to help battle a blaze in Smithville in October 2015.

It’s been a pretty busy summer so far when it comes to fighting wildfires in Central Texas.

“We have seen a year that mimics more of what we had three, four years back,” says Travis County Fire Marshal Tony Calloway. “With a longer duration of dry period, no rain and high heat.”

Those conditions lead to more wildfires, which, Calloway says, are being fought from the air using the county’s STAR Flight helicopters.

They’re taking on more and more of an active role, he says, for two reasons.

"We’ve had obviously more grass fires here versus last year, related to where they were going to potentially destroy property," Calloway says. "And, secondary, their capabilities are better than they were. Each year STAR Flight has increased their capabilities."

Casey Ping, STAR Flight program director, says the county’s aerial firefighting capabilities really ramped up after devastating wildfires in Bastrop killed two people and burned around 1,700 homes in 2011.

“That was really kind of our Central Texas wakeup call,” Ping says.  

By 2013, the county had bought one chopper especially for firefighting. The others in the fleet can be outfitted to fight fires, but they’re also used to airlift patients in emergencies and in search-and-rescue operations, as well.

“That is a balance that we’re always trying to weigh – what are the resource needs for the fires, where are the fires, what resources do we have available – and trying to make sure that we keep as much capabilities as we can in place for other emergencies.”

Those other emergencies help foot some of the expenses for STAR Flight. Travis County just increased feesfor patients transported by the county’s helicopter fleet. The base rate is now around $15,000 per flight, plus more for each mile traveled.

It’s a cost that County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty conceded sounds like a lot in Commissioners Court last June. Though county officials intend the cost to be covered primarily by patients' insurance and say they can reduce the fee for people who may need to pay a lot out of pocket.

Ping expects commissioners to vote this month on whether to buy a new helicopter for the fleet. As more people move to Texas, he says, the need for it will grow.

“Certainly, as our community grows and we have more wildland interface [with development] and some difficult-to-access areas, the helicopter becomes even more important.”

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.