Kevin Hopf needs to go bomb a fire.

The DC-10 air tanker he flies has stood by, resting on the apron of the Casper/Natrona County International Airport all day Tuesday, as smaller aircraft fight the flames scorching Casper Mountain.

But the midafternoon call has come.

Hopf is polite but firm to a few people visiting the plane: "We do have a dispatch, so I'm going to have ask you to leave."

The three-person crew -- Hopf, fellow pilot Dan Montelli and flight engineer Rich Joseph -- don flight suits and close the hatch.

A ground crew loads the giant tanks slung under the belly of the jet with 11,700 pounds of orange fire retardant mixed with water from nearby tanks.

The two large jet engines spool to life and Hopf waves from the cockpit window. Minutes later the DC-10 is aloft, turning into the fire zone.

The DC-10 is the largest aircraft available to fight wildfires. But it's not the only aerial asset now flying out of the Casper airport in support of the firefighters fighting what's been dubbed the Sheep Herder Hill Fire on the south and east side of Casper Mountain.

Also based at the airport: a BAe-146 four-engine jet; seven helicopters, including two Wyoming National Guard UH-60 Black Hawks; four single-engine air tankers similar to crop-dusters and two twin-engine guide planes.

Airport manager Glenn Januska said the single-engine tankers were overhead only a few hours after the fire was first reported Sunday afternoon. The rest of the aircraft have arrived since and assembled into a formidable aerial firefighting force.

The DC-10's Monday arrival was a big deal, Januska said.

The BAe-146's tank can only hold 3,000 gallons -- a quarter of what the orange-and-white DC-10 can shuttle to the flames. The other aircraft carry even smaller loads. The single-engine tankers carry about 800 gallons.

The Casper airport has featured the ability to reload small aircraft with fire retardant and water since 2009, Januska said. But in July, the call came to add large tanks and a crew capable of refueling the large air tankers, such as the BAe-146 and the DC-10.

"The Forest Service said, 'We have this DC-10 we wonder if you can accommodate at your airport,'" he said.

Januska said he was quick to agree after scouting an open spot at the airport -- a large patch of pavement to the west of the terminal, just to the side of where passengers regularly board flights to Denver and Salt Lake City.

"Really, it was unused pavement," he said.

The open area was formerly a tank farm and refueling location when the airport was a military base, Januska said.

Only a few days later, Januska said the U.S. Forest Service left him a 5 a.m. voicemail message: "We're on our way."

Only days later, the reload location was installed at the site, water streaming to the tanks from an orange-painted fire hydrant next to the airport terminal.

At the site, a crew mixes sealed bags of orange fire retardant with water into a slurry ready to be pumped into the aircraft. Without the early installation of the site, large aircraft couldn't now fly from Casper to fight the fire on the nearby mountain.

"It's a really cool thing," Januska said. "It's just unfortunate it's needed."

The DC-10 has stopped at the Casper airport twice since the reload location's installation, most recently to load up to fight a fire near Chadron, Neb. Now it's back to fight a fire much closer to its Casper reload base.

Aboard the DC-10, just minutes before departure, Hopf says the jet can do a quick turnaround from Casper to the fire -- only 18 minutes round-trip.

"Normally we're 20 or 30 minutes from a fire," he said.

The crew doesn't hear or feel when they drop the jet's load on a fire, he said. The aircraft is so large and heavy, dumping more than 100,000 pounds of retardant and water mix doesn't cause the plane to jump in the air, he says.

It's been a busy summer for the crew, which has fought fires all over the West. "It's been nonstop since the first of May," Hopf said.

The big jet can drop a long line of unbroken firestopper, undoubtedly a happy sight for firefighters on the ground. Also, incident command team spokesman Larry Helmerick noted, its 911 tail number is a stirring sight on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The jet is one of two classified as very large air tankers. Both are owned by 10 Tanker Air Carrier of Adelanto, Calif.

Later, as the jet takes on its load, the crew of the red, gray and white BAe-146 taxis nearby, waiting their turn to fill up at the reload base. Both the large jets are streaked with dried orange flame retardant from earlier drops.

A twin-engine plane will guide the air tankers to their drop points, says Helmerick, as he watches a crew refill the DC-10's tanks on the Casper airport apron. The afternoon heat likely sparked the need for the additional aerial attention, he says.

Farther to the east side of the airport, two of the Wyoming National Guard Black Hawk helicopters are hovering as they reload buckets for their own drops.

On the runway behind both jets, two small crop-duster style air tankers line up for takeoff.

One buzzes aloft, with the second following close behind.

Helmerick watches as the second's wheels lift free from the runway.

"Get up there," he says. 

Reach Jeremy Fugleberg at 307-266-0623 or jeremy.fugleberg@trib.com. Read his blog at http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/boom/ and follow him on Twitter: @jerenergy.

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