CAL FIRE Director gives update on C-130 air tankers

Air Tanker 118 training Ramona, California fire airtanker
Tanker 118, during training flights at Ramona, CA February, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

In an interview this week with CBS Bay Area, Joe Tyler, the new Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the seven C-130s that are being transferred from the US Coast Guard to CAL FIRE will go to Georgia this year to have the 4,000-gallon retardant tanks installed.

CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler
CAL FIRE Director Joe Tyler making the keynote address at the Aerial Firefighting conference in San Diego, March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

During Mr. Tyler’s first interview after becoming Director March 4, he told Fire Aviation two weeks later that it looked like the incorporation of the C-130s into their fleet might be pushed back to 2024 due the pandemic/endemic and supply chain issues. This was in spite of the agency’s efforts in attempting to facilitate movement of the project. In the CBS interview this week he generally confirmed the 2024 timeline, but also maintained hope that one or more would be in service before 2024.

Below is the CBS Bay Area interview with Mr. Tyler.

The U.S. Air Force was directed by Congress in December 2013 to perform  maintenance on the seven aircraft and convert them to air tankers. At that time they were given $130 million for the project. In 2018 Congress appropriated an additional $20 million, bringing the total cost to $150 million. It has now been 3,066 days since the process started.

C-130 air tanker brought to Ramona for crew training

Air Tanker 118 training Ramona, California fire airtanker
Tanker 118, during training flights at Ramona, CA February, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection brought air tanker 118, a C-130, to the airport at Ramona, California last week. Ryan Grothe who shot these photos said, “They conducted training flights in the area, including some touch and goes on the runway and pattern work.”

The seven Coast Guard C-130s will not be officially transferred to CAL FIRE until all of the maintenance and conversion to air tankers is complete, or close to it. That is expected to happen in 2023. No retardant delivery systems have been installed in any of the aircraft. Some of them may still need depot level maintenance.

Air Tanker 118 training Ramona, California fire airtanker
Tanker 118, during training flights at Ramona, CA February, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

Mr. Grothe said one of the C-130s is expected to be based at Ramona.

The relatively short runway restricts which types of aircraft can use the facilities at Ramona. When the U.S. Navy built the airport in 1945 as an emergency landing field it was only 4,000 feet long and remained that length well after it was conveyed to the County of San Diego in 1956.

CAL FIRE established an Air Attack Base there in 1957 and the U.S. Forest Service followed three years later.

Air Tanker 118 training Ramona, California fire airtanker
Tanker 118, during training flights at Ramona, CA February, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.

In 2002 the runway was lengthened to 5,001 feet but it is difficult for most large air tankers and impossible for very large air tankers to work at the base.

In August of 2019 one of Coulson’s C-130s under contract to CAL FIRE was spotted at Ramona.

Air Tanker 118 training Ramona, California fire airtanker
Tanker 118, during training flights at Ramona, CA February, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe.
Air Tanker 118 training Ramona, California fire airtanker
Tanker 118, parked during training flights at Ramona, CA February, 2022. Photo by Ryan Grothe. Two S-2Ts were also there, Tankers 71 and 88.

Another C-130 shows up at McClellan with new CAL FIRE livery

It will be air tanker 117

Coast Guard aircraft #1714 CAL FIRE air tanker 117
Coast Guard aircraft #1714 with new CAL FIRE livery. It will be air tanker #117. Photographed January 14, 2022 at McClellan by Mike McKeig.

Coast Guard aircraft #1714, an HC-130H, has returned to Sacramento McClellan Airport after having been gone for a month or two. Mike McKeig got a photo of it January 14 when mechanics were doing an engine run. It had brand new livery showing that it will be air tanker 117 when it eventually gets transferred to CAL FIRE. The new paint job appears to be about 98 percent complete.

Mike got a “before” picture of the aircraft in November:

Former Coast Guard C-130, 1714
Former Coast Guard HC-130H, #1714, at McClellan, Nov. 17, 2021. Photo by Mike McKeig.

And here is what it looked like 14 years ago…

Coast Guard C-130H No 1714
Coast Guard HC-130H #1714, October, 2008. Photo by PhantomPhan1974

The seven Coast Guard HC-130Hs will not be officially transferred to CAL FIRE until all of the maintenance and conversion to air tankers is complete, or close to it. That is expected to happen in 2023. As best as we could determine, no retardant delivery systems have been installed in any of the aircraft. Some of them may still need depot level maintenance.

California proposes to purchase more Firehawks and expand real time wildfire mapping capability

They also want to add 54 surge engines, 4 more Firehawks, 10 contract helicopters, and 10 additional dozers

FIRIS aircraft
FIRIS aircraft, Orange County, California. Jan. 27, 2020.

The proposal for California’s next budget during the 2022-2023 fiscal year beginning in July includes funding to expand the capabilities of a real time fire mapping system. A pilot program for the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) first got off the ground September 1, 2019 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

At that time the state of California partnered with the Orange County Fire Authority in securing $4.5 million in state funds for technology that increases the real-time information and situational awareness available to the firefighters and other first responders and managers on all-hazards events, including wildfires. It has the capability of making real time aerial video available to personnel on the ground so that they can make better evacuation, strategic, and tactical decisions and increase the safety of personnel.

FIRIS can also transmit near real time fire perimeter and heat maps to a supercomputer at the University of California San Diego that runs WIFIRE spread projections based on the data collected by the aircraft. The output estimates where the fire will be in the next six hours and can adjust for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.

The 150-day pilot program in 2019 started with $4.5 million. Now that it has proved its worth, the Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year would allocate $36 million to expand the capacity of FIRIS, making it more available to first responders across the state.

More helicopters, dozers, and engines

The FY 2022-2023 draft budget includes funds to augment the state’s aviation program until the seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft will be fully converted to air tankers, expected in 2023. As best as we could determine, no retardant delivery systems have been installed in any of the aircraft. Some of them most likely still have a need for depot level maintenance.

The budget would appropriate $45 million annually for three years to secure exclusive use contracts for ten additional privately owned exclusive use helicopters that could carry 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of water or retardant.

The proposed budget includes $99 million in 2022-2023 and $11.7 million ongoing to purchase four additional helicopters. California is already two-thirds of the way toward replacing CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Sikorsky S70i Firehawks. Eight of the new ships are already in the state, but some may not have been officially accepted yet by the contracting officers. Four more are still being built by Sikorsky or outfitted for firefighting by a company in Colorado. If the new purchase is approved by the legislature it would increase the number of recently purchased Firehawks to 16 when they are all delivered.

Forest Health

The draft budget allocates $243 million in 2022-2023 and $245 million in 2023-2024 for a comprehensive package to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and reduce wildfire risk.

C-130 designated for CAL FIRE stops by McClellan, stripped of paint

Coast Guard number 1714

Former Coast Guard C-130, 1714
Former Coast Guard HC-130H, 1714, at McClellan, Nov. 17, 2021. Tanker 118 is behind it. Photo by Mike McKeig.

One of the seven Coast Guard HC-130Hs that may eventually be transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), Coast Guard number 1714, returned to Sacramento McClellan Airport this month. The last time it was seen there was quite some time ago when it was still in Coast Guard livery. When it flew in from Ogden, UT on November 2 it had been stripped of paint. It is likely that the aircraft had been under the care of the 309th Aircraft Maintenance Group at Ogden Air Logistics Complex at Hill Air Force Base.

Mike McKeig got a photo of 1714 at the end of an engine run on November 17, two days before it departed for Roswell, New Mexico.

If the Air Force completes the maintenance and conversion into air tankers as Congress required in legislation passed December 20, 2013, the seven Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft will be transferred to CAL FIRE. They were originally destined for the U.S. Forest Service to be government-owned and privately-operated. But oddly, the agency lost interest and now they will be regifted to CAL FIRE if the Air Force follows through as required. Actually, all seven are still property of the Coast Guard and won’t be transferred over until all of the work is done. In the meantime, CAL FIRE is using at least one to train crews. At news conferences they take every opportunity to have one with the new CAL FIRE livery featured prominently in the background.

Opinion: Congress should hold hearings on Air Force delays in converting C-130 firefighting airtankers

Private industry has shown they can do the work much faster

Tanker 118, 1721
Air Tanker 118. This was the first former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H to be delivered to McClellan Airport, June, 2015. It still needed painting, and to have a conventional retardant tank installed. The Air Force and Coast Guard text and logos have been removed. USFS photo, date and location unknown, but it was not taken at McClellan.

The conversion of the seven HC-130H aircraft into air tankers destined for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is racing along like a herd of turtles. Congress appropriated $130 million in December, 2013 and directed the U.S. Air Force to perform the needed maintenance on the aircraft and to arrange for all of the conversion work, including installation of the retardant tanks.

As we have written several times on Fire Aviation over the last few years, the seven Coast Guard aircraft were initially to be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service after being converted to air tankers, but after a few years the Forest Service lost interest, saying they did not need or want them. Another act of Congress in 2018 transferred them to CAL FIRE, to take effect after being fully converted by the Air Force. The bill also increased the appropriation for the work from $130 million to $150 million. A couple of them have been painted and parked at Sacramento McClellan Airport, but are still owned by the Coast Guard. CAL FIRE has been using the aircraft, which do not have retardant tanks, to train flight crews.

T-119 McClellan 5-5-2020
T-119, an HC-130H, was seen at McClellan May 5, 2020. It did not have a retardant tank. Photo by John Vogel.

The Air Force is supposed to have been performing depot level maintenance on all seven aircraft, which includes on some of them the major project of replacing the center wing boxes. Military equipment that is not needed on an air tanker will be removed by the Air Force and they also need retardant tanks. The Air Force began the contracting process to install conventional gravity-powered internal tanks in 2014, awarded a contract to Coulson Aviation in 2016, then cancelled it in 2017. It was readvertised March 9, 2019 and awarded again to Coulson (working with Lockheed Martin) in December, 2019.

Coulson has fully converted several military C-130’s into air tankers and has completed the entire project for one aircraft, including depot level maintenance and tank installation, in around six months.

It is expected that the earliest the HC-130H’s will be fully operational for CAL FIRE as air tankers will be in late 2022 or in 2023.

The Air Force conversion looks like it will take a total of nine or ten years for the first of seven to be complete. This is totally unacceptable. It is my opinion that the House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Armed Services should hold oversight hearings and ask Air Force personnel what they are going to do to put the program back on track.

The Department of Defense and the Biden administration need to fix this embarrassment of incompetence.

CAL FIRE expects to have seven new Firehawk helicopters in operation this year

The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews

CAL FIRE's new i70 Firehawk helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i Firehawk, helicopter 205, being tested at Centennial, Colorado May 7, 2020. Photo by @skippyscage.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Sikorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

More hand crews

The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Research

The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 is sporting new livery

Tanker 119
Tanker 119 at McClellan, shortly after getting new paint. Photo by Mike McKeig November 20, 2020.

Mike McKeig sent us an excellent photo of CAL FIRE’s Tanker 119 taken after the aircraft received a new paint job.

This is at least the third of seven HC-130H aircraft the agency is getting from the Coast Guard that have been painted in CAL FIRE livery. The plan is for all seven to receive internal gravity-powered retardant tanks so they can be used as air tankers. In May we had photos of Tankers 116 and 118.

The rudder on T-118 was also one of the last components to be painted, like T-119 at the top of the article.

A new contract awarded to DynCorp specifies that in addition to maintaining and supplying pilots for CAL FIRE’s fleet of S-2T air tankers, they will do the same for the HC-130H tankers.

Here is a “before” photo of T-119:

T-119 McClellan 5-5-2020
T-119, an HC-130H, was seen at McClellan May 5, 2020. Photo by John Vogel.

Below are Tankers 118 and 116:

CAL Fire air tanker 118 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 118 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.
CAL Fire air tanker 116 C-130
CAL FIRE air tanker 116 at Sacramento McClellan Airport. Photographed by John Vogel March 4, 2020.