Labor Day spotlight: Forestry Commission’s Clay Chatham

Clay Chatham Jr. spent part of his day Thursday preparing for Labor Day weekend.

He was lining up planes and pilots, and coordinating with other agencies to make sure the aviation division of Georgia Forestry Commission was ready in the event of forest fires. The state is dry from little rain over the past several weeks, and the potential for fires increased as people headed into the outdoors for the long holiday weekend.

“Our pilots are on high alert,” Chatham said. “We are coordinating with DNR (Department of Natural Resources) and Georgia State Patrol to make sure we have the assets we need in place around the state.”

The Telegraph’s search for unusual jobs to highlight on Labor Day led to the main hangar of the Georgia Forestry Commission, where Chatham coordinates the commission’s efforts to find forest fires by air.

As air operations supervisor, Chatham manages a total of 17 planes and one helicopter at six locations across the state. His crew is 10 full-time employees -- nine pilots and a mechanic -- and 21 part-time pilots.

“In Georgia, most wildland fire aviation is going to be Georgia Forestry Commission,” he said.

From his command center adjacent to the commission’s hangar at the Macon Downtown Airport, Chatham monitors his pilots by radio and satellite trackers. He also coordinates flight schedules to make sure he has his pilots airborne during daylight hours in times of fire danger.

Chatham monitors conditions across the state and coordinates with regional Forestry Commission fire commanders to determine when and where to patrol.

Pilots operate during the day, most often in the afternoons, when fires are likely to flare up because of higher temperatures and lower humidity. The pilots have been out in force this weekend, Chatham said.

If a pilot spots smoke while on patrol, he swoops in for a closer look, circling the fire and determining if it’s a controlled burn, forest fire or other type of blaze. If it’s a forest fire, the pilot coordinates with rangers on the ground to communicate specifics about its size and location, then directs firefighters to the right spot. The pilot stays with fire crews to provide information about the terrain as well as the fire’s movement and intensity.

Almost every air patrol finds at least one fire, though not all are forest fires, Chatham said. Last year, his pilots investigated thousands of fires throughout the state, from camp fires to full-blown woods fires. The efforts help to locate fires quickly, cutting down on their size, especially in areas that are very rural and may not have major highways or cellphone service.

Without the pilots, fires in those areas might go unnoticed until they become large and difficult to control, Chatham said.

With pilot spotters, fire response times are shorter because pilots can direct firefighters to the right spot quicker than they might on their own, especially if they’re dealing with rough terrain and poor visibility. They also help keep the firefighters safe by warning them of dangerous terrain and shifts in the flames. “When you are on a piece of equipment, you might only be able to see the area right around you,” Chatham said. “We are a safety blanket.”

The commission’s helicopter is equipped with a 200-gallon bucket that can help firefighters by slowing flames, cooling areas for them to work or dousing them with water to help protect them from the heat, Chatham said.

Chatham, originally from Cumming, attended the aviation program at Eastman’s Heart of Georgia Technical College, now part of Middle Georgia State College. Early on, he was interested in being a bush pilot and was recruited to become a part-time seasonal pilot for the Forestry Commission. Chatham eventually left to become a flight instructor in Florida, but he returned to the Forestry Commission as a full-time pilot based in northeast Georgia in 2006. He was promoted to air operations supervisor in 2012.

The commission employs experienced pilots who fly Cesna 182s and who are up to the job’s challenges, he said.

“It’s old school stick-and-rudder flying at its finest,” Chatham said.

Though it’s not the most lucrative aviation position, the satisfaction of helping fight fires tends to mean his pilots opt to stay.

“Our pilots are overqualified for airlines and they could do other things, but they to do this because it is meaningful to them,” Chatham said.

Chatham enjoyed his time as a pilot and is now relishing his role as air operations supervisor. He still gets to fly around the state working on pilot testing and airplane maintenance. The commission has two spare planes based in Macon to switch out for the regular patrol planes when they need maintenance.

A certified flight instructor, Chatham also trains and tests his pilots.

Occasionally, he gets to take to the sky for patrol. “Unfortunately,” Chatham said, “you have to fly a desk most days.”