Helicopter student pilot spots fire in Bend river canyon

'Where are you calling from?' 911 dispatcher asks

Bend student helicopter pilot spots wildfire (Photo: John Michaelson)

BEND, Ore. - Keaton Snow dreams of fighting wildfires from the air. But the 19-year-old Bend helicopter pilot-in-training had no idea Thursday would be the day he'd start saving lives.

"Is that a fire?" Snow asked Leading Edge Aviation flight instructor Jay Bunning as they worked in the last of their three-hour training flight, around 12:30 a.m.

"Ah, yeah, it might be -- go have a look," he said, so they flew closer to the apparent flames.

"Check it out - it is a fire!" Snow said, and Bunning agreed.

The high-flying duo apparently were the first to spot a wildfire that broke out on the east side of the Deschutes River Canyon, below a southwest Bend neighborhood.     
"Often, pilots are the first to see these kind of things," Bunning said. "They've got a great view."

"Whoa!" Bunning said at one point as they circled the scene. "It just torched that tree up!"

The blaze was quickly spreading up a ravine and dangerously close to a large neighborhood at the top of the canyon rim.

"You know, it was scary, because nothing like this has ever happened (to me)," Snow said later. "And I knew that it was getting within 50 yards of houses."

Bunning said despite sounding calm on the video recording of the flight, it was frightening, "seeing it torch these trees and seeing and seeing how close it was and the wind was in the right direction to blow it to the houses as well."

Quickly, Bunning was calling Deschutes County 911, to make sure they knew and firefighters were on the way, even able to provide GPS coordinates.

At first, the dispatcher appeared surprised at the location of the caller.

"What are you observing?" the 911 dispatcher asked.

"I'm observing a fire that's climbing up the hill towards the houses," Bunning said.

"Where are you calling from?" the dispatcher asked.

"A helicopter orbiting the fire right now," the flight inspector said.

The sound of the circling helicopter also awakened neighbors, which the pair figured was a good thing -- this time.

"I kind of put myself in that position," Bunning said. "Being asleep at 1 o'clock in the morning, and you wouldn't see it until it was right on top of the house."

"Nobody called it in?" Snow asks as they circle overhead. "I guess not," Bunning responded. "They were asleep -- until we flew by."

Back on the ground later, Bunning said, "I did want the people to wake up. Normally, a helicopter buzzing is a nuisance. But I think it's the urgency in an emergency situation."

It woke up area residents like Patrick Douglas -- and he's very glad.

"These guys were definitely trying to wake people up, you knew that for a fact," he said. "And they did a great job."

Snow said he hopes to become an EMS pilot, having previously worked as a medic and firefighter, "and I wanted to combine those careers."

In the view of people like Douglas, Snow and Bunning are already saving lives.

"That pilot and his co-pilot are heroes, in my mind," Douglas said. "They took the time out to ensure that people were getting up."

And spotting the fire over a dark city skyline got a passing grade from Snow's teacher.

"Good eyes, Keaton!" Bunning said.

Bend fire Battalion Chief Bill Boos said more than a dozen firefighters responded to the scene, not including the Central Oregon Irrigation District crews.

Bunning posted a 15-minute video segment of the flight on YouTube (

"The fire was about half the size of a football field but below the level of the houses," Bunning wrote later, "so it would be unseen until it crested the ravine, where it would be right on the back yard of houses, less than 100 yards away."

Boos said the cause of the fire was under investigation. Police said later Thursday that while there had been no recent lightning in the area, the cause of the fire had yet to be determined.

Flames erupted along east slopes of the Deschutes River Canyon in SW Bend early Thursday morning; photographer John Michaelson says the bright red light near the bottom of the photo is not flames, but a fire engine heading in from the north along an access road.

Bend brushfire scene

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