Temporarily reconstituting the aerial firefighting fleets for Southern California wildfires

At least 16 air tankers of various types will be stationed in California Wednesday.

S2 air tankers CAL FIRE facilities McClellan

Above: S2 air tankers at CAL FIRE facilities at McClellan, March 24, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Typically in December the number of air tankers that are active on a daily basis declines to numbers much lower than what is seen during the busy part of the wildfire season. Tankers go off contract or beyond their mandatory availability period and many of them begin maintenance programs. The 66,000 acres burning in the Thomas, Rye, and Creek Fires in Southern California could test the ability of the fire management agencies to mobilize enough aviation assets to fill the requests from the firefighters in the field.

This afternoon we collected information about the fixed wing assets that are expected to be available beginning Wednesday.

CAL FIRE has 14 S-2 air tankers, 9 OV10’s, 1 DC-7, and multiple helicopters ready to go. A Neptune Aviation BAe-146, T-12, had completed its exclusive use period but is being reactivated on a Call When Needed contract. A DC-10 and a 747 will be based at San Bernardino and McClellan, respectively. Coulson will supply two C-130’s on a CAL FIRE contract. One of them, T-131,  was loaded with equipment and supplies in order to depart today for their contract in Australia, but with approval of the Australian fire authorities they unloaded the airplane and it will be ready to support CAL FIRE by 0700 on Wednesday. Coulson’s T-133 is having its internal retardant tank re-installed and will also be on site in California Wednesday.

Modular Airborne FireFighting System: Two California National Guard MAFFS C-130’s have been activated by the state’s Governor to assist with the wildfires in Southern California.

Los Angeles City and County: Between the two agencies they have 8 helicopters and two CL-415 scooping air tankers. The winds were too strong yesterday and today to use the fixed wing aircraft.

U.S. Forest Service: Two CL-415 scooping air tankers, two MD-87 air tankers, and two RJ85 air tankers will be on duty Wednesday.

Summary: 14 S-2’s, 2 Very Large Air Tankers, 8 large air tankers, two MAFFS C-130’s, and four scooping air tankers — plus we’re guessing 15 to 25 helicopters.

With the very strong Santa Ana winds currently blowing in Southern California it can be difficult to use fixed wing aircraft over the fires. Air tankers have to fly low and slow, and usually over rough terrain. Strong winds can make this unsafe and the retardant can also be blown far off the target. However on Tuesday, S-2’s, MD-87’s, scoopers and a BAe-146 were used on one or more of the fires.

This article was corrected to say that air tankers were used on one or more of the fires on Tuesday.

10 thoughts on “Temporarily reconstituting the aerial firefighting fleets for Southern California wildfires”

  1. For those affected or threatened by the fires this was an excellent summary of aircraft to be used as soon as it is safe and effective. The coordination of this many aircraft is a major endeavor. What fires gets what aircraft, establish priorities, lead planes, air tactical group supervisors, helicopter coordinators, what air bases to use. Flight patterns, altitude spacing, radio frequencies, target identification and a fluid ongoing plan to adapt to the situation i.e. smoke. There is nothing more frustrating to a pilot than to be held on the ground do to wind or visibility as the fire (s) rages in the distance. As soon as the winds/visibility allows there will be a SIGNIFICANT air attack on these fires.

  2. I was out at Fox Field in Lancaster all day, Dec 5, and the tankers staging there were being used over the fires. News footage of the Super Scoopers dropping on the fires exists if you need proof. I have not seen video footage of the MD-87 or BAE-146 that were heading out to the fire, but they appeared to keep coming back empty (partial loads remaining are usually dumped before landing and that didn’t happen today so I have to assume they dropped), as the ground people kept refilling them with retardant, so they were dropping somewhere, so not sure why the article states they were NOT being used.

    1. Air tankers working a fire near Magic Mountain, Santa Clarita. The Wildfire Today was on target. Many times there will be a window-of opportunity to deliver a load or two if the wind/smoke allow for an effective application of retardant. So at this point the fire managers (incident commander/ops chief are looking at those windows.

  3. Neptune’s T10 (BAe-146) was also reactivated, I believe on a CalFire CWN, and it arrived in SoCal from Missoula yesterday (Tuesday) mid day.

  4. Please keep in mind & be advised the Colson Aviation Group has the world’s largest water based Flying Fire Engine. The Hawaii Mars is equipped to drop load at night ! Now that President Trump has declared a nation emergency re California Wild ~ Fires, I believe this allows Canadian based and registered air craft, ie Martin Mars to help out re this terrible situation. Please see fit to request this machine, it is the 8th wonder of the world, it is capable of laying down a water gel mixture covering four (4) acres per drop. This bird puts out fire. Scoop & Drop, turn around time is as close as the nearest body of water. 7,000 Gallons is scooped up in seconds. Please consider its use you will not be disappointed. ps. Can it land in the Pacific Ocean ? Before conversion from freighter to water bomber the aircraft was based at Naval Air Station Alameda, California. History always repeats, bring her home Cal Fire, you could use her help !

    1. The 72-year old Martin Mars aircraft can carry up to 7,200 gallons while the DC-10 and the 747 carry up to 11,600 and 19,000 gallons respectively. The Martin Mars served well for a long time, and the Coulson Group deserves a great of credit for keeping them running in spite of their age. It’s fun hear those four big-ass 18-cylinder radial engines, but it’s time for the two of them to transition to aircraft museums.

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