California, USA — A quiet orchard north of Santa Paula was converted into a training camp Thursday as firefighters from across Southern California gathered to prepare for what could be another busy wildfire season.
Firefighters spent much of the morning mixing a batch of liquids into a flammable gel in the Adams Canyon field, which is normally filled with grazing cows.
The gel was then fed into a red 50-gallon drum tethered to the bottom of a helicopter.
Finally, about 12:15 p.m., the helicopter took off with a whoosh from the grass-covered meadow.
The blue-and-yellow chopper flew over miles of blossomed-filled orchards packed with orange trees with the barrel full of gel dangling below.
It then flew around a bowl-shaped canyon, where it dropped flaming gobs of jelly onto the plants below, setting them on fire much like firefighters do when they set a backfire.
Much of the canyon was filled with leafy vegetation, still deep green from the abundant winter rains.
“You can get anything to burn if you get it hot enough,” said Jeff Golden, a Ventura County firefighter.
Firefighters chose to hold the exercise while the hills are still green, making it much less likely that a fire will get out of control, said Bill Nash, a retired firefighter and spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.
Even so, a group of firefighters stood watch on the hill above while big drops of fire rained on the canyon from the helicopter.
Firefighters say the “helitorch” is one of their most valuable firefighting weapons.
Firefighters use the helitorch to set a backfire in front of a fast-moving fire, robbing it of fuel and making it easier to control.
The helitorch was used on numerous wildfires, Nash said, including last summer’s Zaca fire.
That fire, which burned more than 240,000 acres, is the second-largest recorded fire in California history. It was fully contained Sept. 2, some two months after it began burning near Buellton in Santa Barbara County.
Had firefighters not used a helitorch, the fire would likely have been a lot more unwieldy and taken much longer to contain, Nash said.
The training also is important for participating firefighters since it gives them a chance to get certified in helitorch operations, said Bob Ameche, a battalion chief with the Ventura County Fire Department.
“Right now, we have a high moisture content in the brush, green grass and moist soil,” Ameche said. “This allows us to safely use live fire and make the training as realistic as possible.”
Those taking part in the training include firefighters from the Ventura County and Los Angeles County fire departments and the U.S. Forest Service.
Organizers of the training let nearby fire departments know of the exercise because of the smoke generated by the fires.