California wildfires stretch aerial firefighting resources

 - August 29, 2008, 1:05 PM

With the recent wildfires in Northern California reaching historic proportions, the human toll rose as a helicopter ferrying an 11-member firefighting crew from the front lines crashed on August 5, resulting in nine fatalities (see story on facing page).
The helicopter, owned by Pennsylvania-based Carson Helicopters, was one of the company’s 12 Sikorsky S-61s contracted to fight the fires that ravaged the region for more than a month. The accident raised to 12 the death toll from this latest firestorm.

On June 20, lightning from a rainless thunderstorm moving over the northern part of the state sparked more than 2,000 fires in the region. “These were lightning strikes that created a widespread area of fire. They started out small and then a lot of them merged in inaccessible areas; many of them had to go unmanned for a while just because of the resource requirements,” said Mike Padilla, chief of aviation for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire). “We relied heavily on air power to hold a lot of these fires in check until crews could get in, and even then there wasn’t enough to go around, so we tapped just about every aviation resource we could.”

To combat the blazes, more than 26,000 firefighters, 1,000 pieces of ground equipment and nearly 200 aircraft were deployed. “It’s the largest deployment I have ever seen of both firefighting resources and aerial firefighting resources in my 25-year career,” said chief Anthony Marrone, head of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Air Operations Division, which sent personnel to the northern part of the state to assist with staffing the active-duty military helicopters that were being used in the firefighting effort for the first time there.

At the height of the blaze–believed to be the worst fire event in the history of California–78 helicopters from Cal Fire, the National Guard, active-duty armed forces, U.S. Forest Service, local governments and private contractors such as Carson battled the fires. Kim Zagaris, the state’s fire and rescue chief with the governor’s office of emergency services, summed up the situation, “If it carried water, we’d take it.” Included were front-line active-duty rotorcraft such as CH-46 Sea Knights and CH-53 Sea Stallions from the Marine Corps, which were used not only for firecrew and cargo transfer but also for water bombing on the fire line.

“Their training, deployment and utilization came as a result of last year’s fire season in Southern California, and then we established a cooperative agreement with them for training this year,” said Padilla. “We certified them and we never really expected them to get out of San Diego, and as it turned out, we moved them right in.”

Other contributions came from around the country. “At the height of this we had upwards of two dozen rotary-wing aircraft from army aviation units supporting the wildfire [efforts] from as many as 14 states as far away as New York,” said the Guard’s Capt. Albert Bosco.

Cal Fire’s own fleet of 11 venerable UH-1 Hueys was used for the initial attack on fires as they erupted, before giving way to contract relief helicopters. “We were able to stay up to speed by bringing in contract aircraft that could relieve our aircraft,” said Padilla.

He further explained that a good portion of the aircraft and crews Cal Fire brought in were there to maintain sustainability past the first one to two weeks. “Crews get tired and aircraft need maintenance, so we had more aircraft than we were using at the time but we were rotating them in and out for sustainability, resting crews so we could continue to keep the pressure on and be able to support the incidents. We were looking at this siege going on for about a month,” he said.

Fixed-wing Reinforcements

In addition to the rotorcraft assets, the effort employed a wide range of fixed-wing aircraft–ranging from a DC-10 waterbomber to the Predator UAV–to help control the blazes. Cal Fire fielded a fleet of 23 S2T twin-turboprop waterbombers based out of the former McClellan AFB, along with 14 OV-10 Broncos used for aerial and ground control. Eight C-130 Hercules belonging to the Air Force Reserve and National Guard were quickly converted into fire bombers through the installation of modular airborne firefighting systems and used to great effect, according to authorities. A pair of National Guard infrared-sensing RC-26s–used frequently on drug interdiction missions–was deployed to identify hot spots in the conflagration and relay real-time images to the crews on the ground. The massive Martin Mars flying boat and a squadron of four Convair CV-580s, each capable of carrying 2,000 gallons of flame retardant, came from Canada.

With so many aircraft and hundreds of fires burning, overall control of the situation took a lot of coordination, according to Zagaris. “It’s a unified command of the air assets that are there. The individual incident [commanders] have control of them when they are there, the geographic area coordination centers dispatch the resources, and from a Calmac [California multi-agency coordination group] standpoint at the state level, we coordinate with the state, federal and local [agencies] and Department of Defense and the California National Guard, to set priorities and coordinate where those aviation assets are going to go and how they are going to go there.”

So far more than 1.1 million acres–an area the size of Rhode Island–have burned and 190 homes and 400 outbuildings have been damaged or destroyed. However, California fire officials believe the bulk of the fire season is yet to come. “Our peak season is usually September, October; it’s just beginning,” said Zagaris.

The early start to this season–coupled with last fall’s fires in the southern part
of the state–meant that the various agencies have been caught trying to catch up. According to Padilla, “Our traditional maintenance season was shortened, and then we started early this year so we had to pull aircraft out of maintenance early… We’ve flown more hours so far this year than we did all of last year.” Governor Schwarzenegger has requested additional federal resources to help cover the remainder of the season. The recent blazes thus far have cost more than $300 million.