ELY (AP) -- The million acres that make up the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are under the careful watch of four sets of eyeballs.
They belong to four U.S. Forest Service pilots who not only watch for fire, but are the first to fight it.
Pilots Dean Lee, Wayne Erickson, Carlo Palombi and Patrick Loe keep an eye on "the back yard," as Loe, an Ely native, calls it. They also perform a mission unique to the Forest Service, operating from the agency's only seaplane base in the nation on Shagawa Lake.
Flying specially modified float planes -- or ski planes in winter -- they perform a range of missions from search and rescue to helping biologists track wolves. But in the dog days of the dry months of July and August, the focus turns to fire.
A July 1999 windstorm that knocked down millions of trees in the BWCAW increased the risk of serious fire in the wilderness area and the focus of the pilots.
"This area has always had fires and it's always going to," Loe said. "The blowdown just added a different twist to things."
It's a twist that could see a conflagration ripping through thousands of acres -- a fire so hot it could skip from island to island, putting lives and property at risk.
In the past few weeks the four pilots have spotted and helped fight small fires daily with their planes and by bringing in ground firefighting crews, Loe said.
By flying frequent patrols and getting fires before they get too big, they hope to stop a major fire from erupting in one of America's favorite wilderness playgrounds, said Dean Lee, another Forest Service pilot based in Ely.
"We need to catch it early," Lee said.
The pilots do that with three aircraft -- 1956, 1957 and 1959 de Havilland Beavers. The classic Canadian bush planes are each equipped with 150-gallon water tanks that once served as external fuel tanks for Korean War-era F-86 fighter jets. The tanks hold about 1,000 pounds of water and can be filled in a few seconds as the Beaver skims the surface of a lake, Loe said. A metal tube connected to one of the plane's floats dips into the water and the movement of the plane forward pushes water into the tank under the center of the fuselage.
Using a release lever mounted in the floor of the plane between the pilot's feet, water can be put on a fire just minutes after it's spotted.
The instant release of 1,000 pounds of weight also makes the aircraft lighter in a hurry, Loe said.
"It's like a 'get out of jail free card,"' he said of dropping the water.
And while the work sounds exciting and dangerous, the pilots said their jobs are very safe and, for the most part, routine.
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