Local boy makes good flying bomber
Call the Sierra Interagency Dispatch Center, identify yourself as a reporter for the hometown paper and ask for Steve Wass, and you’ll get enthusiastic help and hints.
“Bring plenty of film!” said one excited lady on the other end of the phone. “He’s our local wonder!”
Wass, a Gardnerville resident, flies a Lockheed C-130 “Hercules” air tanker, fighting fires all over the west. By chance and luck, he recently spent more than a week stationed at the Sierra Interagency Dispatch Center at Minden-Tahoe Airport – and helped extinguish the fire that started Wednesday morning on the south end of Dresslerville.
“It’s just pure good luck that I’m in my hometown, sleeping in my own bed,” he said Wednesday afternoon, where he and copilot Craig LaBare were relaxing in the belly of the plane, waiting for their next mission.
“It’s nice to be here in the summer. I’ve missed the summers.”
Wass, a 1978 Douglas High graduate, has lived in the Carson Valley since he was 4. He began flying during his senior year of high school, and at 19, he got a job loading chemical fire retardant into air tankers.
“It looked more fun to fly them, and it is,” he says.
Wass has been working for Hawkins and Powers Aviation, based in Grey Bull, Wyo., since he was 20. The company provides firefighting air tankers to the Bureau of Land Management.
Though the fire season varies, Wass can usually count on being away from home from May through September. The crew gets one day off a week, making home visits difficult.
“We pretty much live out of the plane. You never know where you’re going to go,” said Wass, pointing to the mountain bikes, luggage and clothes hanging around the plane’s interior.
He was still in the Carson Valley Friday, but a new assignment could mean an instant departure.
The C-130 Wass, LaBare and engineer Mike Davis are operating is based in Oregon, but sent wherever it’s needed. During their stint in Minden, they helped fight the Lockwood fire outside of Reno. The Dresslerville fire took only a couple of hours, but just after it was contained another was reported north of Reno, near Pyramid Lake.
By 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, they were back at Minden-Tahoe Airport.
“It gets real boring. You’re either really busy or really bored,” said LaBare. “It’s either feast or famine.”
The C-130 carries 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. The substance can be released through one, two, four or all eight doors in the bottom of the plane, depending on what’s needed.
Under contract rules, the craft must be airborne 15 minutes after a call is received, but LaBare and Wass said they’re usually gone within five minutes. The bombers swoop as low as 150 feet to drop the slurry.
Wass said his knowledge of the area helped during the local fires.
“Even though you can see it, you know exactly where it is and what’s out there,” he said.
“Plus, he knows this airport really well,” added LaBare.
Wass said the biggest fire he’s encountered this year was the Clover fire near Winnemucca, which consumed 90,000 acres. In past years, he fought fires that burned millions of acres in Alaska.
When the fire season ends, Wass will return home to give soaring lessons, work as a corporate pilot for Western Nevada Properties and play music – he’s played drums and guitar for several local bands.
By spring 2000, he’ll be ready for another summer job.
“I have still not decided what I want to be when I grow up,” he said. “I just started making a living doing this.”