Southern California adds to its helicopter fleet

San Diego County will be adding a third firefighting helicopter to their fleet, implementing one of the recommendations in a report on the 14 fires that broke out in May in the northern part of the county. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday allocated $5.2 million for another helicopter to become part of the County Sheriff’s stable of aircraft.

Photo by San Diego County.

The Supervisors also approved contracting with the city of San Diego to use its night-flying helicopters for fighting fires or making rescues at night.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s office Astrea unit (Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies) currently operates the following helicopters:

  • One MD500D. This is the oldest in the fleet, the workhorse of ASTREA since the late 1980s. The “D” model will eventually be replaced with a more powerful helicopter.
  • Three MD500F, better suited for high altitude and high temperatures than the MD500D.
  • Two Bell 205 A1++, for fire and rescue
  • One Bell 407 equipped with a data-link antenna and associated hardware which makes it possible to pass a live video feed to ground personnel. It  is also equipped with a FLIR 8500 thermal imager with laser designator.

Helicopter pilot honored for assisting entrapped fire crew

Gary Dahlen award

A helicopter pilot was honored Tuesday for assisting a hand crew that deployed fire shelters on the King Fire east of Placerville, California. This is the way it was described on CAL FIRE’s Facebook page:

Pilot Gray Dahlen received an award from the USFS, for his heroic actions on the King Fire. The pilot rescued a CAL FIRE Hand Crew and a CAL FIRE Dozer Operator from harm’s way.

The hand crew and dozer operator were constructing fire line when they were overrun by the fire. The pilot flew down to a lower level to direct the hand crew and dozer operator down a road. Once Pilot Dahlen found an open area to land he and another helicopter pilot landed and flew the crew out to a safe area.

These photos that accompanied the brief report did not have any descriptions, nor were the individuals in the photos identified. (Very unprofessional, CAL FIRE.)

We listened to the live radio traffic during the incident-within-an-incident on September 15 and live blogged about it as the emergency developed. Later we found out that the crew was a CAL FIRE inmate crew.

Below is an excerpt from our live reporting that day:

At 1:27 we wrote:

At about 1 p.m. PDT on Monday there was a fire shelter deployment on the King Fire, which is burning 11 miles east of Placerville, California north of the community of Pollock Pines. In listening to the radio traffic, a Division Supervisor talking to Air Attack said a Task Force was overrun by fire — they were in a safety zone, but they were safe. He requested air support, but there was too much smoke for fixed wing air tankers to get in to the area.

Air Attack, as of 1:15 p.m. PDT was checking to see if helicopters could work the area, but when the incident unfolded they were all on the ground getting fuel. Later at about 1:25 p.m. PDT at least one helicopter with water was over the incident watching firefighters running, carrying fire shelters. The pilot was holding on to his water in case there was a major need for it later. He was giving the firefighters directions, saying “keep moving”.

One alternative considered was to extract the firefighters using a water bucket carried by a helicopter.

Someone else on the fire said they had five vehicles that were available to rescue the trapped firefighters, but the road to the area had just been overrun by a very intense fire and they were advised by a pilot to not try it.

There was also a report on the radio of a dozer that burned up, but there was “accountability for the operator”.

We continued providing live updates until the crew had been extracted by helicopters.

After the above, most of the radio communications we heard that was with the hand crew, was from the Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO). Only rarely could we hear the crew on the ground. The HLCO was escorting the crew as they ran and walked to a safe area, giving them frequent encouragement and directions about where to go. He arranged for drinking water to be delivered to the crew before they reached a spot where they could be extracted by helicopters.

From the first report of the emergency until they were in the helicopters, about two hours elapsed.

Gary Dahlen award

Helicopter King Fire

DC-10 dropping downhill on the Silverado Fire

This video was shot on September 12 and is tagged Silverado Fire at LiveLeak. It may be the same drop made by Tanker 912, a DC-10, shown in the photo below which was taken on the fire the same day. We posted the photo and more information about the Silverado fire on Wildfire Today.

T-912 Silverado Fire
Tanker 912, a DC-10, drops on the Silverado Fire September 12, 2014. Photo by Initial Attack Fire Media. (click to enlarge)

Video of aerial attack on Courtney Fire

Thi above video shot at the Courtney Fire three miles southeast of Oakhurst, California shows slow motion drops from a DC-10, P2V, S-2, and a couple of other aircraft that are too far away to determine the model. And, check out what appears to be an explosion at 0:29.

A DC-10 reloads at Castle Airport

Tanker 910 at Castle Airport
Tanker 910 at Castle Airport.

Yesterday we wrote about the DC-10 air tankers and how they frequently work out of Castle Airport, a former U.S. Air Force bomber base near Merced, California. Today we have some photos from the base contributed by Stanley Bercovitz who is serving as a ramp manager and public information officer at the base.

Tanker 910, a DC-10
Tanker 910, a DC-10, reloads with retardant at Castle Airport.
Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport
Once the tanker is stopped and the chocks are set the parking tender waves in the retardant loaders. The side of the tank has three ports and at least two are always used to fill the tank at Castle. After loading has started a mechanic will climb a ladder and monitor the level of retardant, eventually giving a signal to stop loading.
Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport
A mechanic talks to the flight crew through a wired headset, watching each engine as it starts. Once all three are running, he puts the headset into a compartment inside the nose gear and gives a thumbs-up to the pilot and the parking tender.
Retardant mixing operation at Castle Airport.
Retardant mixing operation at Castle Airport.
Tanker 911, a DC-10, at Castle Airport
The flight crews prepares to receive a meal via a bucket on a rope.

DC-10 air tankers find a temporary home at Castle airport

Over its 73-year history Castle Air Force Base just northwest of Merced, California has hosted a variety of large aircraft on the 30 parking pads, including B-52 bombers and KC-135 refueling air tankers. After the base closed in 1995 it became known as Castle Airport, operated by Merced County.

In 2013 when the 257,000-acre Rim Fire was burning nearby, the airport started to host a different kind of air tanker, firefighting aircraft that drop retardant on wildfires. Last year and this year it was designated as a Call When Needed air tanker base, activated only when specifically needed. The taxiways, parking areas, and the 11,802-foot runway, all designed to support large bombers, make it a facility capable of handling quite a few Large and Very Large air tankers, including C-130s, MD-87s, BAe-146s, and DC-10s. The reloading base has been set up just northwest of the 30 B-52 parking pads. (map)

This year while hosting the 11,600-gallon DC-10s and other air tankers, the base has pumped almost half a million gallons of retardant into aircraft. A Very Large Air Tanker such as a DC-10 departing the airport in the center of the state could reach the Oregon or Mexican borders within about 45 to 50 minutes.

The two DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers at Castle today, Tankers 910 and 911, have been there often over the last several weeks, however they do move around to other bases depending on the need. Occasionally this year they have both attacked the same fire, placing over 23,000 gallons of retardant on the vegetation as the pair assisted firefighters on the ground. The two aircraft both dropped on the fast moving Oregon Fire near Weaverville, California shortly after it started late in the day on August 24. Their air drops along with efforts from other aircraft and of course boots on the ground held the fire to 580 acres. Today it is 85 percent contained.

Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their third DC-10, Tanker 912, is in the process of being “carded” by the Interagency AirTanker Board at Albuquerque, New Mexico. Engineers are fine-tuning the computer programming for the three external retardant tanks. Next week, he said, it should be ready to go and will be brought on as an exclusive use air tanker under the “additional equipment” provision of the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest service.

The video below reports on the Junction Fire in California, and how air tankers played a vital role in minimizing the damage.

National Public Radio has an interesting article about air tankers. Below is an excerpt:

…Bill Hahnenberg, an incident commander with the Forest Service, was initially skeptical of this new generation of air tankers — he wasn’t sure how helpful they’d be in the fight against Western wildfires. Then, in August 2012, Hahnenberg was leading the fight against the Springs Fire in the Idaho mountains.

If firefighters hadn’t been able to get a handle on it quickly, there was a chance it would be unusually destructive: “There was a high likelihood we would have been managing that fire for, rather than a few more days, probably a few more weeks,” he says.

Hahnenberg says the fire was at risk of jumping over a mountain and burning into two small towns. He had just a few hours to get fire retardant on the ground.

“At that point we’re looking for the biggest, heaviest hammer we could bring to the table,” he says.

That hammer was sitting at the Boise airport, about 40 miles away. It was a giant DC-10 air tanker the government had just hired to fight such fires. Two retardant drops later, the fire was boxed in and ground crews began to get the upper hand. In the end, the Springs Fire turned out to be sort of a nonevent — a sign of success.

“Once an air tanker has contained that fire, we never see that, because it doesn’t show up on the news,” says Scott Fisher, who oversaw the Forest Service’s air tanker program until his retirement this summer.

The DC-10 used on the Springs Fire was part of the agency’s effort to grow and modernize the tanker fleet. In 2000, the government had more than 40 air tankers on contract. But many of those were built during World War II and the Cold War, and two crashes of so-called “legacy” air tankers led many to be parked for good. The number of air tankers would later fall to just nine.

Fisher says that number was simply too low. “Not having sufficient resources caused the system to be stretched,” he says. “And certainly because of that there were fires that we just did not get to.”

 

Portable retardant plant at the Beaver Fire

Portable retardant plant
Portable retardant plant along the Klamath River on the Beaver Fire. (click to enlarge)

On Tuesday when I was at the Beaver Fire northwest of Yreka, California a Sikorsky Air-Crane was reloading with retardant from tanks at a portable retardant plant along the Klamath river.

Helitanker 743 reloads with retardant
Helitanker 743 reloads with retardant

Helitanker 743 reloads with retardant More information and photos about the Beaver Fire.