Dana Morris and FireFlight weren’t exactly a package deal when Flagler County purchased the helicopter in January 2002, but close. The veteran chopper pilot was asked shortly after its purchase to fly for the county temporarily until the position could be permanently filled.
Twenty years and more than 12,500 flight hours later, Morris will power down the rotorcraft one last time as its pilot on November 13 – five days before his official retirement after 43 years of flying.
“Our history together goes back further than the 20 years each of us have been here,” Morris said, reflecting on his career in Flagler County. “I was working for the company that sold the county FireFlight, assigned to firefighting and as a search-and-rescue pilot in Yosemite (National Park, California).”
The decision to purchase FireFlight (built in 1998) was made in the aftermath of the ‘98 wildfires in Flagler County – the first time in US history that an entire county was evacuated due to wildfire. During those fires 71 homes were destroyed, and another 175 homes were damaged.
Since its purchase, FireFlight has dropped about 2 million gallons of a water and foam mixture from its “Bambi bucket” – or about 8,653 bucket drops – for fire suppression. Reconnaissance and fire suppression combined account for 54% of its usage by flight hours, and 49% of its number of flights (trips).
“I didn’t necessarily expect to be here, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the job full-time. My mother lived in Florida, so I accepted it to be near my mother,” Morris said, who has a thirst for adventure. It was his recreational passion that led to his eventual career: a 1978 trip to British Columbia, Canada, to go helicopter skiing.
Morris’s work with helicopters led to stints at the Grand Canyon, New Guinea, Australia, Berma, Yemen, most of the western United States including Alaska.
“Flagler County was, and still is, growing,” Morris said. “Though its primary mission is fire suppression, FireFlight, of course, is equipped for medical flights and to assist law enforcement. It’s equipped with an infrared camera for use during nighttime operations.”
He recalls an early mission – probably 2003 – where he, FireFlight, and his flight medic rescued a lost hunter who was having heart problems.
“He was lost in the woods in an area where it would be difficult to get to him with an ambulance,” Morris said. “It was nighttime, dark, and the hunter was able to position the phone so we could see it. Between that and the reflection off his clothing, we were able to get right to him. We loaded him up and went straight to the hospital (that is now AdventHealth Palm Coast).”
Not a single occupied dwelling has been lost due to wildfire since the acquisition of FireFlight. It was instrumental in keeping the massive wildfire events during 2007 and 2011 at bay.
Morris has a scrapbook of old-school newspaper clips and letters of commendation highlighting notable events of their tenure together in Flagler County.
“This has been a great job and I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of talented people,” Morris said. “It’s been a memorable and great ride.”
FireFlight by the numbers 2002 through September 2021 (which include the numbers of Flagler County Pilot Todd Whaley):
- Total Flights (Trips) – 5,786
- EMS – 718
- Reconnaissance – 2,142
- Fire Suppression – 720
- Law Enforcement – 613
- Maintenance Flights – 177
- Search and Rescue – 259
- Training – 749
- Community Service – 408
- Total Flights Hours – 4,285.2
- EMS – 415.5
- Reconnaissance – 1,462.0
- Fire Suppression – 885.6
- Law Enforcement – 465.5
- Maintenance Flights – 107.0
- Search and Rescue – 190.2
- Training – 584.3
- Community Service – 211.1
- Gallons of Water/Foam Dropped – 1,817,159
- Buckets Dropped – 8,653
- EMS Transport Revenue – $2,934,967