Cal Fire, National Guard go airborne

Cal Fire, National Guard go airborne

14 April 2015

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USA — Residents between Ione and nearby Pardee Reservoir probably spotted an abundance of helicopters donned with electric salmon-painted numbers flying around during the weekend, many of which had orange buckets dangling from their undersides.

There were no fires in the area to put out, but the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the California National Guard would certainly be ready to help put them out, as the two entities held their annual fire aviation training at Pardee and the Cal Fire Academy in Ione from Friday through Sunday.

Cal Fire and the National Guard have worked in cooperation for 43 years now, and the National Guard has supplemented Cal Fire’s helicopter fleet increasingly over the years when several wildfires occur.

“We don’t use them every year but, of course, in the fourth year of a drought, we’re using them more and more,” said Lynne Tolmachoff with Cal Fire. “It’s pretty much inevitable that we’ll give them a call sometime this summer.”

With aerial support from the National Guard having been relied on in each of the past three years, in fires such as the Rim Fire, King Fire and several fires in Northern California, and with this summer fast approaching, this annual training comes at a prudent time.

“We try and do this right prior to the official fire season kicking off, although I would argue the fire season in California is year-round now. We have fires in January, which just goes to show you how bad the condition is,” said Bob Spano, director of joint staff with the National Guard.

The annual aerial preparation is the largest joint training the two organizations have to prepare for the state’s fires.

“Last year, in year three of a drought, we had 1,000 more fires than we did the previous year, and that was well above normal,” Tolmachoff said. “This year, so far we’ve already had over 600 wildfires, and that’s probably more than double what we’d have over a five-year average for the same time period. So we’re definitely way above what we should be.”

Tolmachoff added that 150 of those 600-plus fires in California were started just last week.

“We’re in the worst drought we’ve seen, at least in my lifetime, so Cal Fire’s resources are limited,” Spano said, noting that they have a large area to cover through the state. “They definitely rely on us to fill in some of those gaps.”

The National Guard also assisted Cal Fire to put the fires out on the ground last year, which is typically a rare necessity.

In the weekend training, Cal Fire and National Guard staff worked together to go over and simulate the protocol of aerial assistance in fighting a large fire. All three types of helicopters typically deployed by the National Guard to assist with firefighting were in use by several teams each day. Multiple UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters flew back and forth from Ione to Pardee, practicing how to deploy the buckets used to collect and dump water on fires. The teams, made up of two pilots, a flight engineer, crew chief and one Cal Fire liaison per aircraft, took some of the lake water into the buckets, and then emptied them on hillsides nearby, so that the water would drain back into the lake.

“It’s really good training for us. It simulates basically everything except the smoke,” said Daniel Lowry, a chief warrant officer of the U.S. Army.

Like Lowry, Army pilot and Valley Springs resident Mike Rathe flies the UH-72 Lakota helicopters, which aren’t the ones doing the water drops. The Lakota helicopter staff is relied on as communicators that fly as command leaders, scout out areas of the fire and decide where water buckets should go.

“We fly around with a senior fire captain and they control the other helicopters’ water drops from there. They kind of evaluate where the priorities are, call their drops and make sure it’s the most effective use of the resource,” Rathe said. “They also help out some of the guys on the ground; let them know what the section looks like.”

Along with scouting things out, the Lakota crews report what they see to a helicopter coordinator and can project digital images and video of the fire to their headquarters. And unlike the other copters, Lakotas typically only have a single pilot.

“It’s a lot of fun. We’re a little bit different since we fly by ourselves, so we have to be a little more experienced to do that mission,” Rathe said. “But it’s very fun, very challenging because of the conditions you’re in.”

“It’s probably some of the most challenging flying we can do,” Spano said of navigation through the smoke of a fire. “We have these high temperatures, typically higher altitudes, limited visibility, and then the most challenging thing is the communications. That’s why the training is so critical; absent some of those things, your training is what you go on. If you have challenges up there, the more training you do the more familiar you are to get yourself out of the situation.”

Spano, a former pilot who flew in firefighting and medivac missions for several years himself, recalls fighting fires before these types of training, before digital technologies or even variations of aircraft were available.

“The first fire I was on was in 1992, the Fountain Fire, which was a big fire up north, and at the time was the biggest one in the history of the state. I took 10 Hueys and a team, and we were assigned up there for a two-week period, and they said, ‘Just go make it happen,’” he said. “To think back between then and what you’re seeing now, with all three aircraft that we have available, in addition to what you’re not necessarily seeing, which is all the stuff we use for imagery to provide to Cal Fire, the full-motion video we’re able to send them, it’s a significant game changer.”

The California National Guard has four Lakotas in its fleet to spot check for 19 total Black Hawks and Chinooks, the former’s buckets able to hold 660 gallons of water, and the latter with a capacity of 2,000 gallons. The fleet also consists of air tankers that can spray retardant, and some planes with tanks that can draw in and spray water, and Cal Fire hopes to expand on each type of aircraft. However, contrary to public belief, aerial firefighting alone cannot put out a large fire altogether.

“They don’t put the fire out, they just slow it down so we can get boots on the ground in there to actually extinguish the fire,” Tolmachoff said. “They’re vital to controlling the spread of the fire, so very important to us. In our larger fires, the air support is crucial.”

The buckets dumped are most effective when dumped along a fire line to control its growing boundary, according to Tolmachoff.

The National Guard and Cal Fire aircraft fleet may have to increase due to the drought, not only because of the excessive fires, but because of the lack of reservoirs with enough water to fill the helicopter buckets.

“The water has to be a certain depth in order for them to drop the buckets into it. If it’s not there, they’ll have to go farther to find a larger body of water to do that,” Tolmachoff said. “It used to be that you’d find people on properties with small ponds that were deep enough to use, but a lot of those ponds have dried up and aren’t getting refilled, either because water districts aren’t allowing it or they just continually dry up. So they’d have to go to the larger bodies of water to get water. But if that becomes a huge issue, we’d bring in more aircraft so there’s not that much lag time getting the water where it needs to go.”

This summer may again be a tumultuous one for Cal Fire, but its joint training with the National Guard should provide the necessary preparation and strategy to keep damage to a minimum.

“There’s always a strategy. Cal Fire is the best firefighting agency in the world, and the biggest. They’re really good at it, so we take our cues from them,” Spano said.

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