USA – More details are emerging about Cal Fire’s ability to fight the Camp Fire from the air as it roared toward — and then through — the town of Paradise.
Air tankers were flying above the fire about 70 minutes after it began on the morning of November 8, according to Dennis Rogers, chief of flight operations at Cal Fire’s McClellan Airfield in Sacramento.
He explained that the initial, immediate dispatch included two tankers, a helicopter and an air tactical aircraft.
The smoke plume from the fire in some places kept pilots from attacking it from the air, he said, adding that the first tanker pilot on the scene could not see through the dense smoke on the ground. There were also winds of up to 50 miles per hour coming through the Feather River Canyon.
“After 45 minutes to an hour flying around looking for someplace to be effective, he went back to Chico [still] loaded,” Rogers said.
Cal Fire made two additional attempts that same morning, this time trying to fly fix-wing air tankers, but results were the same. “The turbulence was just too much that close to the ground,” Rogers said.
More than 50,000 people were evacuated after the Camp Fire tore through Paradise and other small Butte County towns. It burned 153,336 acres, destroyed some 14,000 homes and killed 85 people, the most destructive wildfire in California history.
Rogers says even if pilots had visibility, tanker drops in the town of Paradise wouldn’t have made much difference, because most firefighters on the ground were busy evacuating people instead of fighting the blaze.
“We will drop retardant and it slows the spread of the fire. But if it’s not followed up on with engines or hand crews, that retardant will eventually be burned through or spotted over,” he said. “The idea that we were gonna put these fires out with aircraft is not realistic.”
According to Rogers, six helicopters capable of carrying more than 600 gallons were able to fly under the smoke canopy. They dropped water on the evacuation routes out of Magalia and Paradise as another six California Highway Patrol helicopters helped with evacuations in Magalia and Concow.
Forty-five minutes after the first tanker arrived, Cal Fire ordered additional helicopters for coordination and reconnaissance.
In addition to 1,200-gallon-capacity Cal Fire S-2T planes, U.S. Forest Service tankers from Montana and the 19,200-gallon Global SuperTanker were called in and were on the fire that afternoon. Although some smaller, 800-gallon Fire Boss tankers were available, some of which scoop water from lakes and some that carry retardant, Cal Fire favored the larger tankers and helicopters.
“If you just throw more hardware at the fire, it’s not only not going to give you the desired result, but it can also create an unsafe situation when you have too many assets in a confined spot,” Rogers said. “The folks involved did everything that they could. Sometimes Mother Nature has her way with all of us.”
The military and Bureau of Land Management have experimented with using drones to help fight fires, but Cal Fire has not moved in that direction.