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Crash halts burn attempt.

Crash halts burn attempt

Since Sept. 15, scientific investigators scheduled to participate in the largest fire experiment in history--a massively instrumented study of the environmental effects of a 2,000-acre chaparral forest fire (SN: 10/4/86, p.213)--have been on 24-hour call. Three times it looked as though they were within a day or two of carrying it off. But each time, weather conditions--clouds that would obscure remote-sensing data, rain that would slow the burn or high winds that would make containing the fire difficult-- necessitated a last-minute postponement. Then, on Dec. 3, a picture-perfect day, the go-ahead was given.

The pilot of a Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter flew along the perimeter of a test area, pumping out a thin stream of burning gasoline from a torch suspended from a cable about 30 feet below the copter. But as the pilot was maneuvering a turn, the torch hooked a telephone line. Just five minutes into the project, the copter crashed.

"Thank God nobody was injured,' says Philip J. Riggan, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist in Riverside, Calif., and coordinator of the burn experiment. "If the helicopter had come down 20 feet either way of where it did, there is a good chance it would have rolled 1,000 feet down the hillside.' As it was, after tumbling about 100 feet, the vehicle was snagged by a small oak. The pilot emerged with a few bumps and scratches. The helicopter, however, was totaled and the project halted.

But not before Wesley R. Cofer, an atmospheric chemist from NASA Langley Research Center in Langley, Va., was able to sample combustion gases generated by the five or six acres that had been ignited. "Ours is probably the only experiment that obtained measurements,' says his colleague, Joel Levine. "And they show our equipment works perfectly.' Weather permitting, they'll get to try them again on Dec. 11 or 12.

This may be the last chance this season, however. Robert Swinford, the project spokesman, told SCIENCE NEWS on Monday that, owing to other commitments by some of the plane crews and investigators, "if we can't schedule the burn in the next 10 days, we'll probably have to hold off until next May.'
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Title Annotation:controlled burn in southern California
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 13, 1986
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