Family-owned aerial business comes to rescue of Cedaredge
Leonard Felix Jr. didn’t need an official invitation.
A friend was in danger.
Fresh off a day’s work spraying fields around his airstrip in Olathe, the 67-year-old Felix saw white smoke billowing below Grand Mesa and just north of Cedaredge, where he knew there was a cluster of homes. Felix also knew that same smoking stretch of land was close to the home of a friend, Scott Morris.
Morris called Felix around 4:30 p.m. on June 8.
“He’d been watching the fire and it was moving toward his house pretty fast,” said Felix, owner of Olathe Spray Service Inc., 60377 U.S. Highway 50. “(Morris) probably called about 30 to 40 minutes after we first saw the smoke. He wanted us to get up there.”
Over the course of roughly four to five hours, Felix and his son, Deven, did just that in a company fixed-wing airplane and a helicopter.
In doing so, officials said the family spray business of 43 years played a major role in averting a much more destructive wind-whipped wildfire than the June 8 blaze that burned a mere 39 acres — a blaze fire officials on the ground in Cedaredge declared “knocked out” within four hours of receiving the first call.
“If there wouldn’t have been an aerial attack, we’d have been looking at this fire on top of Grand Mesa and it would probably still be burning as we speak,” Delta County Emergency Manager Rob Fiedler said Friday.
“Not to take anything away from the ground crews, but Leonard can fly down and read the ladybugs on the dandelions,” Fiedler said. “He drops water that close.”
With the elder Felix flying a fixed-wing tanker, and with Deven flying a spray helicopter, Olathe Spray Service Inc. dropped approximately 10,000 gallons of water with 25 to 30 runs between Felix’s air tanker and a helicopter over the course of four hours.
“We kind of lost track (of the number of drops),” Leonard Felix said.
The aircraft were reloading water bombs at Delta County Airport, where the Delta Fire Department had staged water tankers, Felix said.
Fortune was on the side of firefighters and Felix. Olathe Spray Service had already finished the day’s spraying and cleaned their aircraft by the time Felix and company spotted the smoke.
“Knowing Leonard, he’d probably call off spraying and fill up with water if we call him to come,” Fielder said.
Felix, born and raised in Olathe, has sprayed seeds, pesticides and fertilizer over western Colorado farming communities for more than four decades. The spray service has a 3,700-foot runway about two miles south of Olathe, where there is a 100-acre family farm.
Felix, who has logged more than 28,000 hours behind the controls of helicopters and airplanes, also teaches safety courses to the National Agricultural Aviation Association.
Felix also is the go-to guy for Delta County and other entities in need of wildfire water drops or search and rescue missions.
Felix charges counties and special districts for fuel and time for his flights, which may or may not cover his true costs.
“It’s not unusual for him to donate the cost back on occasions,” Fielder said. “He’s always treated the county and fire districts very well.”
For the June 8 fire, Felix said he’ll send a bill of a little more than $5,000 to the Cedaredge Fire Protection District. That includes a $1,000 discount.
“That’s because of their outstanding efforts on the ground,” Felix said.
Felix said he expects more calls for service in a 2012 fire season he described as being “as bad as it gets.”
There will be more seasons, if Felix has a say in the matter.
“Oh yeah,” he declared, before laughing. “Another 20 years, maybe.”