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Appleton firm fights western fires

Fire Boss 885 pilot Keaton Mitchell on relief for pilot Don MacDonald scoops water on Bull Lake in Montana. Aero Spray started as an agricultural spraying company in 1988 in Appleton. (Renee Lund | Aero Scoop | Submitted)1 / 2
Fire Boss 885 pilot Keaton Mitchell on relief for pilot Don MacDonald scoops water on Bull Lake in Montana. Aero Spray started as an agricultural spraying company in 1988 in Appleton. (Renee Lund | Aero Scoop | Submitted)2 / 2

APPLETON — A good day’s work at this Appleton-based company can mean saving lives, homes or a farmer’s crops.

This year that has been happening on nearly a daily basis for the Aero Spray team. It began fighting wildland fires in early March. Company founder and owner John Schwenk said the end of this season’s fight is not yet in sight.

Aero Spray pilots began the season helping battle wildfires in Minnesota but soon focused their attention on wildland fires charring forests in the states of Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho. With an operations base in Deer Park, Washington, Aero Spray’s firefighting team has a fleet of eight aircraft at work, dropping water and fire retardant.

There are plenty of people in the Appleton area who know the company for its crop spraying services, but not so many who know its role fighting the fires raging across the drought-stricken West, according to Laura Thomson. She joined the company to help coordinate the efforts after working as a lender with a local bank. There are those who still ask her if hers is a year-round job, she laughed. She wonders when the frantic pace might slow.

Schwenk led his company into the aerial firefighting business in 1999. He considers the wildfires he has seen this and last year in the west to be among the worst. “Horrible,’’ he said.

The good news is the firefighting tools he brings to the scene. It’s all thanks to his crop spraying business.

Schwenk grew up in the crop spraying business, working originally alongside his father, the late Philip Schwenk, in Murdock. Father and son parted ways. John Schwenk started his own company in 1988.

The company’s crop spraying service ranges across western and central Minnesota, from Ortonville to Murdock west to east, and from locations 20 miles north of Morris to 20 miles south of Madison.

It was strictly agricultural work at first for John Schwenk, until one of his pilots left him. Schwenk then made a decision to invest in the largest aerial spray plane made to be more efficient and cover more ground. When the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources learned that Aero Spray had an AT-802A Air Tractor in its fleet, it contacted him to contract for firefighting services.

The largest plane for spraying crops is the smallest for fighting fire, but it is well-suited for quickly suppressing wildfires that can threaten homes and property.

That’s one of the company’s firefighting niches, Schwenk said. It battles the blazes that threaten homes and property that have been built along the edges of the wildlands.

The next big step in the company’s growth followed when South Saint Paul-based company Wipaire turned the Air Tractor into a more potent firefighting tool. Wipaire installed amphibious floats and a larger engine to the craft.

Known as the “Fire Boss,’’ the amphibious aircraft can scoop up anywhere from 600 to 820 gallons of water by skimming along a lake or river and deliver its load to a fire in minutes.

It takes about 14 seconds to actually fill the tank as the plane skims across about one-quarter mile of water surface, Schwenk said. A glass window allows the pilot to watch as a violent rush of water fills the tank “like a washing machine ready to explode or something,’’ Schwenk said.

It’s the Fire Boss that has made possible much of the company’s firefighting business. As long as a one-mile long ribbon of water can be found, it can collect and deliver much more water in a shorter time frame to a fire than larger planes that have to go back to the airport to refill, he said.

This year, one of the six Fire Bosses that Aero Spray operates made 85 to 90 drops in one eight-hour day fighting a western fire, he said.

The company has firefighting contracts with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, states of Washington and Idaho and the Minnesota DNR.

As important as the equipment is to the company, so has been its ability to recruit the talent it takes fly craft like these. Those employees are committing themselves to months of fighting fires based in remote areas.

Schwenk said the pilots and crew feel good about their work devoted to saving lives and property.

“I don’t know anybody who is in it for just the money,’’ he said.

The company’s pilots range in age from 32 to 71. All have had extensive flying experience before joining the Aero Spray team. That’s true on the agricultural side of the business too.

No different than fighting fires, crop spraying work can be very intense, Schwenk said. Seasons are compressed and providing quality, timely service is everything, he said.

To learn more and view photos and video of its planes in action out west, check out the company’s Facebook page.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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