It’s another record year for wildfires in California with more than 2.2 million acres burned and 3,200 structures destroyed through August in 7,276 incidents. CalFire aircraft dropped 6 million gallons of water/retardant on these fires, including 3.8 million gallons in August alone. In all of 2020, 3.2 million acres were incinerated, more than three times a typical year’s conflagration. And that means it’s another bumper year for the firefighters of CalFire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
While huge fires have burned in 2021—such as the recent Dixie blaze that torched 922,000 acres and the Caldor fire that burned 218,000 acres through September 11 and was then 53 percent contained—CalFire manages to put down 97.7 percent of all reported fires before they reach 10 acres, said Ben Berman, CalFire’s chief helicopter pilot. CalFire’s owned fleet of Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks from United Rotorcraft and Bell UH-1s plays a big role in that containment. So do more than 320 helicopters from 80 vendors that can respond under call-when-needed contracts and CalFire’s fleet of fixed-wing aircraft of OV-10 Broncos, Grumman/Marsh Aviation S-2 Tracker tankers, and C-130s from the California Air National Guard. CalFire is also in the process of building its own C-130 fleet of seven aircraft, which will be equipped with a gravity-fed tank system that can drop up to 4,000 gallons, 1,000 gallons more than the Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) currently used by the Guard aircraft with better coverage, Berman said.
As for helicopters, the Firehawks are particularly useful as they can carry three times as much water—up to 1,000 gallons—as the UH-1s and fly up to 40 knots faster (155 knots). They have a maximum gross weight of 22,000 pounds and are permanently configured for transport of up to eight firefighters or for performing search-and-rescue missions. The Firehawks can fill their 1,000-gallon tanks via the onboard snorkel in as little as 40 seconds. CalFire is in the process of adding up to a dozen Firehawks to its fleet of 12 aging UH-1s and is operating a mixed fleet of 16 helicopters that will grow to 18 by year-end. CalFire’s goal is to eventually grow its fleet to 24 helicopters, half of them Firehawks. The current fleet distribution means that CalFire can have a helicopter at a fire within 20 minutes.
The contracted fleet is divided among type 1, 2, and 3 helicopters, with 50 percent falling into medium-category ships like the Huey. Types 1 (heavy) and 2 (light) are equally divided at 25 percent each. The light helicopters primarily provide traffic control and logistical support. But Berman cautions that not all 320 contracted helicopters are always available, as some are also contracted to other entities such as the U.S. Forest Service or public utilities. The contracts “don’t mean we have access to them all the time.” But that number of helicopters would rarely be needed. Berman said CalFire has put 40 helicopters on the Caldor fire to date. But marshaling that kind of response can still stretch resources, Berman said. “We work constantly trying to shift resources to efficiently use the ones we do have.”
Those resources are most often needed on a large scale where the topography is challenging, the winds are strong, and roads are sparse. Such was the case with the Bridge Fire in Auburn in August. “It’s hard to get heavy equipment in there, the whole river valley had a lot of dead fuel [on the ground], and the wind just came whipping in like a blowtorch,” Berman said. “It was throwing spot fires sometimes six miles away. So those spot fires would turn into another 150 acres that would divide our forces. And it’s almost impossible to get heavy equipment in there so you have to build strategic firebreaks using nothing but hand crews.” Urban sprawl is another factor as fires commonly break out “where wildlands and urban interfaces.”
Berman noted that the Dixie fire that consumed nearly one million acres broke out at a campground and quickly grew to 2,500 acres. He and his crews dropped 250,000 gallons of retardant on nearby communities just so residents could gain road access.