Two air tankers carrying fire retardant flew behind Gicla's lead plane, helping three water-equipped helicopters and 700 firefighters who were busy trying to contain the fire.
"We did pretty well yesterday," Gicla said on Tuesday, Sept. 10. "It's not over, but it is pretty well under control."
As usual, Gicla, who flies from fire to fire and is on the road nearly half the year, was a long way from his home in Colorado, and even further from his hometown of Salem.
Rick Gicla is the son of Lori Benedict, who owns a big farm in the Sturkie area with her husband, Don, and is a former state representative.
"We were dairy farming when Rick was growing up, and he was busy milking cows and involved in bareback riding at rodeos. I don't know where his desire to become a pilot came from," Benedict said. "When he graduated from Salem High School in 1984, he signed up to attend the University of Arkansas, and really couldn't think of anything he wanted to study. But he said, 'I'd like to learn to fly.'"
"No one in my family flew or had a background in aviation. I've just always liked airplanes since I was a little kid. When I decided I wanted to learn to fly, I saw it as a career path," Gicla explained.
So, instead of entering U of A as planned, Gicla enrolled at the Spartan School of Aviation in Tulsa, Okla. After earning his pilot's license, Gicla got a job at Lincks Air Service in Mountain Home, where he became a flight instructor and flew charter flights.
Benedict eventually bought a six passenger plane and opened the Ozark Regional Flight Service in Mountain Home. "I didn't really know what I was doing, but I ran the office and Rick did the flying. I just wanted to help my kid - that's what mothers do," Benedict said. Rick did a lot of charter flights and suggested the company try to get a contract with the Forest Service. In the mid-to late 1990s, a contract come through and Rick began flying Forest Service administrators.
"I began flying observers involved in Air Attack Missions. The observer was basically in an overall command position, in charge of commanding those involved in controlling fires. My job involved being a pilot, taking the Air Attack people up and seeing what was going on above a fire," Gicla said.
From his contract work, Gicla became interested in the Forest Service's mission, and the high ranking people he flew liked what they saw in him.
"When we sold the aviation business in 1999, I had been encouraged to apply for a Forest Service position and was sort of in the right place at the right time. I went to work with the service in 2000," Gicla said. After about a year and a half of training, he was certified to work as a lead pilot for wildfires.
According to Gicla, the lead pilot leads air tankers as they fly in to drop fire retardants. The lead plane flies about 150 feet above a fire, checking for visibility, turbulence, the terrain below and safe entry and exit routes for the tankers behind him. As he flies, the tankers are just about a quarter mile behind him, as he directs exactly where they are to make their drops and guides them out of the fire area. At 150 feet, Gicla said his plane is high enough to get a good view of the fire, but low enough that he frequently encounters smoke coming up from the fire.
"A typical day is to fly missions all day, land and stay in a hotel, get up and check out and begin flying again. By 6 or 7 o'clock, we know where we're going to end up for the night," Gicla said. Gicla is one of about 25 lead pilots in the country. After 13 years with the Forest Service, Gicla is now also involved in checking the progress of pilots in training, and evaluating established pilots. The day he worked the Morgan Fire in California, he was doing a check on another pilot.
While Gicla said he loves his job and intends to stay with it, the constant travel is a grind. This year, Gicla has fought fires in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California, often staying in an area for up to two weeks when helping with a large fire. "The Forest Service occasionally works the big fires, but we usually work the smaller fires to stop them from getting out of control," Gicla said. For example, the Morgan Fire, which began on Sunday, Sept. 8, spread quickly in dry, steep terrain, the type of conditions that can allow fires get out of control - like the recent one at Yosemite National Park. While 3,245 acres quickly burned, the concerted effort of firefighters and the Forest Service tankers allowed the fire to be 60 percent contained after two days of work.
During his 13 years, Gicla has noticed a trend. "Especially in the past couple years, fires have become bigger and hotter, creating more challenges for firefighters," Gicla said. "One problem is, if nature had her own way, there would be relatively small fires every few years to stop too much fuel from growing." While the Forest Service tries to help nature by doing prescribed burns, Gicla said they are harder to do as more and more people move into forested areas. While controlled burns can help protect them, many people don't like them and try to stop them because of the smoke and inconvenience they cause.
One reason he stays with the job is the satisfaction he and other pilots get from their work. "The work you do helps save people's houses and helps firefighters on the ground. Either way, there is a certain amount of satisfaction at the end of the day," Gicla said.
One thing he did not mention is a certain amount of danger that comes with the job. "He's told me some things [that have happened] that don't make a mother feel too comfortable," Benedict said.
Gicla said he has great memories of growing up on his family's Sturkie farm, and is disappointed he "doesn't get back home as often as I would like."
As we prepared to go to press, we were informed that Gicla had spent recent days flying over the devastating flooding in Colorado, coordinating air traffic for National Guard Helicopters performing rescue operations in remote areas.
Benedict said she hopes her son's story can serve as an inspiration to other small town students who don't know what they are going to do with their lives when graduation approaches. "Rick is proof you can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it," Benedict said.