Award cites Bill Moody’s long career as an aerial firefighter
Bill Moody had to fudge his age a bit to get his first job fighting fires in the Deschutes National Forest in 1956 when he was still in high school, but the numbers don’t lie now. Moody has spent more than 60 years in professional wildfire suppression and innovation, an achievement that was recently recognized with the 2020 International Walt Darran Aerial Firefighting Award.
Administered by the International Fire Aviation Working Group and the Associated Aerial Firefighters, the award has been given annually since 2014 to honor the late Walt Darran, a pioneer and advocate for safety and advances in aerial firefighting — whom Moody had interacted during aerial firefighting strategy meetings and trainings.
Moody’s award is for “significant contribution to aerial firefighting,” which is a tidy way to sum up a 65-year career that started with fighting fires on the ground and moved quickly to smokejumping in 1957.
“Fighting on the ground in three fires my first summer as a high school student qualified me to be a smokejumper two weeks after graduation,” says Moody, adding, “They’ve since raised the bar a bit.”
His long years of experience culminated with meaningful involvement in the development and deployment of the Boeing 747 “SuperTanker,” which many contend has been a game-changer in wildfire suppression efforts, due to its ability to carry nearly 20,000 gallons of fire retardant.
Moody calls the SuperTanker not a silver bullet, but instead simply “a piece of the toolbox” of wildfire suppression.
“Particularly in the United States,” he says, “no one aircraft can single-handedly stop a fire. We use helicopters, a variety of air tankers — some of which can drop 800 gallons, while others drop 19,000 gallons — we need to employ the right resource for each job.”
Ultimately, Moody says, all the aerial firefighting efforts are aimed at a single objective: to support the people on the ground who are using hand tools to create containment lines. “People, engines, bulldozers — they’re the ones containing the fire,” he says. “In the air, we’re in a support role. We all know what the objectives are and we work together to achieve them.”
This teamwork mentality is one of the reasons Moody is so highly regarded in his field; he sees himself and his contributions to firefighting efficacy and safety as part of a group effort to address what has clearly become a pattern of increasingly intense wildfire events.
Within the firefighting community, Moody says, there’s no debate about whether or not the climate is changing. “It’s a fact,” he says. “Some are not sure whether the extreme climate change we’re experiencing now is man-made or cyclic, but we’re all confident that it’s what we are facing from now into the future. Our fire seasons are two to three times longer, periods of drought are more frequent and more extended, temperatures are increasing and precipitation is decreasing.”
Coupled with poor health of forests internationally, Moody says, we’re looking at more and more devastating wildfires like the ones recently experienced in Australia, which burned more than 25 million acres.
It’s important to note that Moody’s award is of international scope, and Moody’s contributions to advances in firefighting have been, fittingly, astonishingly international. Daren Belsby, Base Manager for the North Cascades Smokejumper Basecamp, points out that Moody traveled to the former Soviet Union in 1976 on an exchange to learn about a Soviet parachute system.
“Can you imagine getting permission to enter the Soviet Union in 1976?” Belsby asks rhetorically. “It was a big deal at that point in history. But Bill had some special agreement due to firefighting.” In the Soviet Union, Moody learned how to sew a superior parachute — the FS-12. “They had a better round,” says Belsby, “and Bill went to learn about it.”
During his career — which included 17 years in Belsby’s position as base manager — Moody advanced firefighting efforts in Mongolia, Israel, Bolivia and Chile, where he won a Chilean Red Cross award for saving lives and property. Moody formally retired last year, but was almost immediately pulled back into aerial firefighting work during the devastating fires in the Amazon basin. “I still help out when things are overloaded,” says Moody.
Belsby, who was the last employee Moody hired during his tenure as base manager, calls Moody “a legend in the smokejumper community.” His stats speak for themselves, says Belsby, citing Moody’s 615 jumps over 33 years of jumping — some of them with Belsby — his 200 fire jumps, and his 17 years at the helm of the birthplace of smokejumping.
For Moody, a career path that revolved around jumping out of airplanes into hot zones was forged early in life. “My cousin’s husband was a paratrooper,” he says. “I looked up to him. I always had a desire to be a paratrooper. And then when I first got hired in the Deschutes working fires, I got to see smokejumpers in the distance. I was inspired by them.”
Moody describes himself as having “little experience but a strong desire” when he applied for a “prestige job” as a smokejumper at the North Cascades Smokejumper Basecamp in 1957.
After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees, Moody taught junior high and high school in Wenatchee during the school years and smokejumped in the summer, eventually moving to the Methow Valley full-time in 1969. He began SuperTanker work in 2004 and has since become one of the world’s leading experts on its design and efficacy, especially as its international applications become more frequent and more critical.
“The U.S. is the gold standard in wildfire suppression,” Moody says. “We are very organized and attentive to safety. We have refined and effective systems. Many of these other countries simply don’t have the systems in place.”
Canada and Australia, Moody points out, have similarly well-organized communication and logistical systems, but countries like Bolivia and other developing nations are not very organized and have little or no experience with large air tankers, let alone integrating these large aircraft with helicopters and smaller planes. “There’s just a lack of communications and dispatch infrastructure,” Moody says. “They haven’t developed the protocols.”
Even in Europe, Moody says, there is little communication between countries, so fighting wildfires — which don’t typically respect international borders — forces firefighting leaders to navigate different standards, communications, and politics.
With characteristic modesty, Moody underemphasizes his own impact on the United States’ streamlined systems. “We have the history,” he says. “The first air tanker drop happened in the U.S. in 1955. We have 65 years of experience. We crashed a lot of aircraft and killed a lot of aviators. Those were lessons well-learned.” Those lessons of the past, says Moody, created the Incident Command System — a “costly but effective program that continues to improve.”
To receive the International Walt Darran Aerial Firefighting Award, Moody traveled to McClellan Air Force Base outside of Sacramento, California, where an annual aerial firefighting conference was taking place. In addition to Moody’s award ceremony, the conference featured representatives from two dozen countries offering workshops on aerial safety, trade show booths with all the latest firefighting and safety equipment, and state and federal agency leaders discussing policy.
When the conference was over, Moody flew back to his home in the Methow Valley and resumed his life of retirement, managing the Twisp bed and breakfast that he and his wife, Sandy, own and operate. No fires in sight, but given the climate forecast for the years ahead, it’s likely that Moody will be pulled back in to offer expertise in the field he has been advancing for more than half a century.