Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Chasing Fires

Flying For CAL FIRE Aviation

While fighting the "16" Fire in Rumsey Canyon, smoky haze turns the sky orange as the sun starts setting.
Rush, Serpentine, Robbers and Mill are names of some of the fires I've flown. Fires are usually named after a geographical landmark at the origin of the fire—a road, town, river or a creek. The names are poetic—Melody, Moon, Spring, Bohemian; descriptive—Lakeshore, Ridge, Creek, Butte; and occasionally ironic, such as the "Forest" fire we had this summer. Every fire is unique, and the name of the fire gives it character and makes it more memorable.

In California, fire season starts anywhere from March to June, depending on the latitude. Earlier in the south part of the state and later in the north, fires start when the rains end and are generally in concert with the warmer temperatures and dryer air of summer.

When the alarm rings at one of CAL FIRE's 13 Air Attack Bases, the Tanker and Air Attack pilots scramble, usually taking off within five minutes for the fire. Air Attack pilots have a back-seater, an Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) who's specially trained to coordinate fire operations from inside the airplane above the fire. The CAL FIRE aviation unit's mission is Initial Attack or IA. The pilots are expected to be in a constant state of readiness and to get to the fire as soon as possible to assist the firefighters on the ground in putting the fire out before it gets big or out of control.

Air Attack is often the first resource at the scene of a fire. We establish a five-nm-wide Fire Traffic Area (FTA) and then stack, separate and clear in incoming fire-fighting helicopters and fixed-wing tankers at different altitudes. Helicopters work the lowest, tankers circle above, then Air Attack—the eye in the sky—above, so we can see everything and direct the helicopters where to make bucket drops and tankers where to make retardant drops. We look for water sources for incoming helicopters, check for hazards such as snags (tall dead trees) and power lines, the fire's potential to spread, watch for fire spotting over any established lines and assess the overall situation. Sometimes, the fire is in a remote area and Air Attack helps direct ground resources in to the fire by guiding them to the right access roads.

We take off with the bearing and distance from the station to the fire, and most fires are easy to find. In clear air, you can see the smoke column rising from the side of a mountain or a structure that might be threatening vegetation and head straight for it. But sometimes, getting to the fire is just as much of a challenge as putting it out. When a fire has become "extended," it's big and can encompass hundreds or thousands of acres. The sky becomes a grey smoke-filled haze, and visibility is reduced to just two or three miles. We have to find the heart of the fire we're called to work on, and sometimes the landscape has many flaming hearts.

Every fire requires a different strategy of attack. Wildland fires may start at the base of a steep rocky cliff and tankers are called in to drop downhill heading over the crest, but sometimes, only helicopters can access the terrain and make water drops to cool off the fire. Some fires threaten structures and time is of the essence in stopping its spread. Raging grass fires are exciting to watch because of the speed the orange, flaming leading edge moves across the terrain especially when the winds are strong. Fires start for different reasons. When they're caused by lightning storms, you might see numerous smoke columns. Many fires are caused by humans and often by human carelessness. Sometimes, a structure fire extends into the vegetation, and firefighters in California are extremely vigilant about preventing that from happening. The speed, precision and teamwork of the firefighters on the ground is amazing and impressive.


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