An excellent photo of a Los Angeles County Blackhawk (“Firehawk”) helicopter dropping on the Sierra Fire May 4 near Santa Clarita in southern California. The suspected preliminary cause was a burning vehicle. Firefighters stopped the fire after it burned a few acres of brush.
The article below was written by Johnny Yount. Photos were taken by Bob Martinez.
Times are changing in the wildfire business as quickly as the global weather. The annual National Guard and CAL FIRE training was conducted April 10 through 12 at the CAL FIRE Academy in Ione and Lake Pardee in Amador County. The Army National Guard has been in partnership with CAL FIRE for over five decades fighting fire with helicopters. The C 130 (MAFFS) provided by the Air National Guard at Channel Islands have been delivering retardant since the 1970’s. In an effort to protect the people and resources of California every branch of the military in California can provide aerial delivery of water or retardant. This is not unique to California, as many states have increasingly become involved in using state guard units to augment firefighting forces.
In the early 1990’s a plan called Spirit of Cooperation was put together by CAL FIRE to begin working much more closely with the State’s military helicopter units to benefit and provide a safer fire work environment for both CAL FIRE and the Military.
Meetings where held, issues identified, and a plan of action initiated with a mutual understanding of what would be required to enhance the capability of both the Guard and CAL FIRE simultaneously.
There were five components to the plan. One of the components identified was the addition of a military helicopter manager who would fly at all times with the helicopter and provide tactical and logistical support to the military air crew. This simple step, providing an air program qualified helicopter manager to be part of the flight crew, maximizes the capability of the helicopter to move around the State much like a fixed wing air tanker.
The training at the CAL FIRE Academy was a refresher for most in attendance. The majority of the students are CAL FIRE aerial fire fighters, air attack and helitack Captains. Each military manager represents years of air program understanding and airborne firefighting experience. Also involved in the program are aerial fire fighters from Orange County Fire Authority and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When a Guard helicopter is activated, a manager is assigned to a specific copter and crew. The Blackhawks have a crew of three military and one CAL FIRE military manager. The Chinooks have a crew of four military and one CAL FIRE manager. In addition to the airborne helicopter assets, Guard and CAL FIRE liaisons are assigned to the activation. Maintenance teams, fuel tenders and other military support staff are also assigned as needed to assure that the activation runs smoothly. As mentioned, the Guard helicopters move around the State more like a fixed wing air tanker than a helicopter. It would not be uncommon for a Guard helicopter to be working a fire on the Modoc National Forest (Alturas Airport), get released, head south to a new emerging fire on the Angeles National Forest, remain overnight in Bakersfield, and then be reassigned to a fire in Ventura County.
During transit the Guard helicopters are in contact with the three primary CAL FIRE Operation Centers at Sacramento, Riverside and Redding. New initial attack fires or change of assignment are common. This fire season the Guard facilities at Los Alamitos, Stockton and Mather will be providing as many as five Chinooks and five Blackhawks.
CAL FIRE will hold similar training with the United States Marine Corps and Navy.
The Orange County Fire Authority now has four helicopters ready to operate at night. Beginning in March, the southern California agency began a six-month pilot program in which their four helicopters rotate 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.
In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to fight fire. They even purchased $25 million worth of helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.
…The benefit of night flights was shown on Sept. 4, 2010, when the fire authority sent a helicopter into a nighttime blaze for the first time. The crew made 12 water drops, and helped contain a 10-acre fire in less than three hours. The flight crew was in the parking lot on its way home when they got the a call around 7:56 p.m. for assistance.
The [six-month trial program] comes six years after an independent auditor recommended the fire authority could improve after the 2007 Santiago Fire that scorched more than 28,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes in Orange County.
Because of budgetary and safety concerns, round-the-clock air operations took a back seat to other issues in the six years since adopting night-vision technology, said Gene Hernandez, vice chairman of the Fire Authority’s board of directors.
“There was significant changes occurring in the organization that we needed to address, and this wasn’t a front-burner issue,” Hernandez said, citing budget cuts at the time.
The extra coverage allows the fire agency to respond to the 25 percent of calls for air assistance that used to fall outside the previous 12-hour duty day, according to a staff report. Last year, the agency’s helicopters responded to 196 calls total.
The helicopters sometimes still flew at night, but only when on-call crews responded back to work.
Under the new program, one aircraft will be staffed with a pilot and crew chief, with a firefighter/paramedic rescuer added on the weekends, at an annual cost of $1.5 million.
CAL FIRE has extended it’s contract with DynCorp for another year for maintaining and operating their S-2T air tankers and OV-10s, and for maintaining their UH-1H helicopters. The agreement has a total value of $27.8 million.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has extended its contract with DynCorp International (DI) to continue supporting its aviation program to help suppress and control wildfires.
“The partnership between CAL FIRE and DI allows us to meet our mission and keep the residents of California safe.”
“Our aviation fleet is a critical component to our ability to contain wildfires in California,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director. “The partnership between CAL FIRE and DI allows us to meet our mission and keep the residents of California safe.”
Through this contract, DI team members pilot and maintain CAL FIRE’s modified S-2T air tankers and OV-10A aircraft. Air tankers are used to drop fire retardant to help battle wildfires, while the OV-10A aircraft support aerial firefighting operations by directing the air tankers and monitoring critical areas. DI also provides maintenance support for CAL FIRE’s UH-1H helicopters that are used to transport fire fighters and equipment. Aircraft maintenance services include repair, overhaul, modification, and manufacturing of airframes, engines, propellers, helicopter rotating components, and various aircraft parts and components.
“The true heroes are the firefighters that work on the ground to stop these wildfires, and we are honored to work alongside them. DI has supported CAL FIRE since 2001, and our team members take great pride in being able to augment the efforts that save lives, property, and natural resources throughout the state of California,” said James Myles, DynAviation senior vice president, DynCorp International. “Our partnership with the CAL FIRE team has helped DI become a true leader in aerial firefighting.”
Sunday evening CAL FIRE / Shasta County Fire participated in the Redding (California) Lighted Christmas Parade with a special float featuring Tanker 94 flown by Smokey Bear dropping a special load of presents. The model airtanker is a replica of CAL FIRE’s Tanker 94 based at the Redding Air Base. It was created by CAL FIRE Engineer Patrick Westrip and many volunteers. Watch a video of how it was developed.
You can compare the float with the real Tanker 94 below.
Firefighters on the ground and in the air routinely put out fires when they are small, but only the large fires that threaten private property get the extensive news coverage. The Mesa Fire was knocked down Saturday at about 7 p.m. after burning two acres in Cajon Pass in southern California near Interstate 15. Helicopter 531, Air Attack 51, and firefighters on the ground made the stop.