RHINELANDER - As he suited up with a bit of swagger and his aviator sunglasses, all eyes were on Greg Fiss and his airplane Wednesday morning. However, Fiss was quick to deflect the fame on the people watching him.
"They're the rock stars, we're just more visible," Fiss said of ground-based firefighters through his thick southern accent.
Fiss filled up his single-engine air tanker, or SEAT, with 800 gallons of water to show a group of DNR firefighters at Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport how he can help. The native Kansan has flown a SEAT for 14 years, transitioning from agriculture crop dusting.
The DNR-contracted planes carry fire-slowing chemicals to drop on hot spots, flying at speeds of 185 miles per hour when fully loaded. Fiss estimates he flies upwards of 200 firefighting missions each year.
"It's got big wings, but you've got a spot, a couple spots you can look down and see the fire pretty well," Fiss said. "And then it's pretty much just feel."
The planes' arrival mark the first time the DNR ever stationed its SEAT planes in Rhinelander. They're normally in Necedah and Siren. Bringing them to Oneida County was for good reason this week.
"This is one of the driest places in the state at this time," DNR Forest Fire Suppression Specialist Jim Barnier said.
Fire danger sits at high in Oneida and the surrounding counties, with an estimated line of "wet vs. dry" drawn from Lincoln County north. Barnier strategically places the planes where they could be used the most, then teaches his teams how to best use them.
"Prepare them for the worst and hopefully the outcome is keeping the fires small," Barnier said.
Wednesday morning, Barnier went over tactics like "shoulder and head" and "hook and pinch" with his ground forces, stressing the planes should be used early and safely. The planes cannot drop flame retardant on people. One liquid drop covers an area 100-feet wide by 400-feet long.
"It definitely is like preparing for a battle," DNR Forestry Team Leader John Gillen said.
It's up to crew members like Gillen (who is the team leader for Oneida and Vilas counties) to decide when to call in the air support. Gillen says he's gone on a number of forest fire calls in the Northwoods this spring, but has never called in air support. That could change in 2018.
"[They're] a lifesaver in terms of jumping on and suppressing or containing a fire. Just helping us out," Gillen said.
The planes don't put a fire out, but can slow the spread before firefighters on the ground can even get to an active scene. Firefighters see the SEATs as a valuable tool they hope not to need, but with a busy holiday weekend ahead, Greg Fiss knows he'll likely be spotted flying over the Northwoods soon.
"Oh yeah, it'll be a busy season. It always is," Fiss said.
The SEAT planes will be in Rhinelander until substantial rain knocks the fire danger down. The DNR reminds you burning permits for debris fires are suspended until further notice. It is legal to light campfires for warming or cooking, but keep water and shovels nearby.
The DNR bills whoever is found to be responsible for starting a wild fire when a SEAT plane is used to help fight that fire.