Posted 7 years 330 days ago ago by Admin
Every wildfire is different and every wildfire must be respected. It is another triple-digit afternoon, and the third call-out of the day. The radios are awash in static and layers of non-stop chatter. With each hiss and scratch, a mental picture is drawn of the size and scope of the fire. Each crew member prepares for what is to come, and tries to push down rising adrenaline with an outward façade of calm.
Both S-2 air tankers have already made their initial drops and are heading back to base to reload and return. Directed in by the airtactical plane orbiting the columns of smoke, the gleaming white and red UH-1H ‘Super Huey’ charges in at low-level and banks hard to the left. Eyes inside the rotorcraft thoroughly survey the area through airborne debris and haze for any threats adjacent to their chosen landing zone.
The Huey, battered by hot winds, descends purposefully through a large gap in the 100-foot pines and comes to a hover 4 feet above a rocky outcrop near the fire line. The large, aft compartment doors on each side of the aircraft slide to the rear. The firefighters offload their gear and hand tools before they drop off the skids onto the rocks and scrub brush. The captain, positioned on the left skid, grabs a handhold and manhandles the large orange Bambi bucket into two pairs of waiting arms. The helitack's two newest recruits - pounded by the rotor wash - cradle the 324-gallon bucket and move quickly to the nose of the hovering copter. With everyone clear of the immediate area, except the one firefighter performing the hover hook, the pilot pulls enough collective to allow the bucket to be attached to a belly hook without that firefighter having to stoop. With bucket and electrical connections checked and verified, the remaining firefighter clears out.
In less than two minutes, the ship and crew have been configured to fight fire. The pilot pedal-turns to the left and lowers the nose. The rotors bite down hard into the thin air, and with the familiar metallic grind and wop-wop-wop of a Vietnam-era movie, the Huey makes a beeline for the nearest dip site to take on water. Meanwhile, the helitack crew stumps toward the blaze and begins cutting a firebreak strip bordering the left flank.
Burning Timber, Burning Budgets
Wildfires are uncontrolled fires that begin in areas of combustible vegetation such as grass, brush, or timber. While lightning causes some wildfires, experts estimate that 90% are human-related, sparked by campfires, arsonists, and machinery. Coupled with the fourth year of unprecedented drought and a surplus of organic fuels, fires are spreading much more quickly than in previous years. The King Fire in Eldorado County, California, exploded by 50,000 acres in a single day.
In 2014, California burned through its $209 million budget to fight wildfires in just the first quarter of its fiscal year. An additional $70 million had to be reallocated from reserves to fund the traditional wildfire season that was yet to come. By year’s end, CAL FIRE, the state’s fire emergency response and resource protection department, had responded to 5,260 fires: 1,000 more than the previous year.
CAL FIRE’s mission is to protect lives, property, and natural resources in a 31-million-acre area of pristine timberland, wildlands, and urban forests. The agency covers the state with 810 fire stations operating 1,095 fire engines, 215 rescue squads, 63 paramedic units, 38 ladder trucks, 58 bulldozers, and six mobile kitchen units. An additional 82 engines and 12 bulldozers are funded through contracts with individual counties.
World’s Largest Firefighting Air Force
The first leg in battling wildland fires is initial aerial attack. In addition to ground-based resources, CAL FIRE maintains the world’s largest firefighting air force; a network of 13 air attack bases and 10 helitack (fire-attacking helicopter) bases with 23 S-2 air tankers, 15 OV-10 air tactical planes, and 12 helicopters.
From strategically located bases, CAL FIRE can put an OV-10, two S-2 air tankers, and a helitack over a fire within 20 minutes. These aircraft can access areas too remote or unsafe for ground forces to immediately enter. The goal is to hit a fire as hard as possible while buying time for additional resources to arrive. Helitacks insert the first firefighters on the ground and drop water and foam while air tankers lay retardant to suppress further advancement. The air attack coordinator, sitting in the rear seat of the OV-10, coordinates all air traffic. This coordinator may also act as the incident commander until one can be established on the ground. Once additional resources have arrived and have control of the fire, initial attack aircraft can be released to respond to other new fires. It is not uncommon for air attack crews to respond to three or four calls for initial attack in a single day.
CAL FIRE's helitacks are self-contained units that consist of a pilot and fire captain in the cockpit, and six seasoned firefighters with their fire captain stationed in the aft-compartment. The helicopter carries all of the gear and tools the crew may need to battle a wildland fire, along with the bucket or tank the pilot needs to drop water and foam on the fire in support of the ground effort.
To handle California’s higher elevations and hotter conditions, a dozen Bell UH-1H helicopters were transformed into “Super Hueys” by being specially refitted with T53-L-703 Cobra engines and main transmissions, 205A/212 tail booms, 212 main rotor and tail rotor systems, and FastFin vertical tail modifications. With a gross operating weight of 10,200 lbs., and a cruise speed of 126 mph, they are well suited for initial attack.
Pilot Experience & Training
Helitack pilots are highly experienced. They come from diverse backgrounds: military, utility, law enforcement, and EMS. New pilot applicants must have a minimum of 2,000 hours as PIC (500 of those hours must be turbine with routine landings in mountainous terrain above 4,000 feet) 250 hours performing low-level missions, and 100 hours carrying sling loads.
To stay sharp, helitack pilots train through a number of scenarios throughout the year. CAL FIRE’S maintenance facility is housed at the former location of McClellan Air Force Base. Bell Helicopter sends its senior instructors there to conduct emergency procedures training for helitack pilots. The pilots are pitted against hours of in-flight failures and full-down auto rotations. Additionally, separate rescue training uses the internally mounted UTC Aerospace Systems hoists. New CAL FIRE pilots attend the USFS Wildland Fire Training Center to hone real-world tactical execution and decision-making skills in nine ATC cockpit simulators.
Once on a fire, a pilot’s workload becomes extremely busy. The priority – always – is to support their crew on the ground and keep them safe. At the same time, pilots must look out for other aircraft, spot environmental hazards such as trees and terrain, and discern vital information from multiple radios. Difficult-to-see electrical wires along roadways, running through neighborhoods, and strung across the width of canyons are an issue for every pilot. However, the biggest hazard is arguably the smoke itself. It can reduce visibility to dangerous levels and is extremely unpleasant to breath.
The Action Continues
“On the dip,” the pilot calls as he descends toward the pond. Lowering the Huey into a shallow hover over the water, the Bambi bucket sinks and fills with more than a ton of water. “Off the dip,” the pilot calls again as he heads back to the fire.
“Copter four-zero-four,” calls Air Attack, “Your next drop is on the left shoulder. Your crew is trying to go direct in there. They’ll follow you in behind your bucket.” The Huey flies left traffic around the fire in a predictable pattern.
“Wires,” the captain in the copilot seat calls out.
“I have the wires,” the PIC confirms. Battling fire-induced turbulence and acrid smoke, the helicopter turns to the left shoulder. Finding the target, the pilot releases a cascade of water and foam onto the fire below. “Off the drop,” he announces. The Huey will repeat variations of this cycle 16 more times before additional resources relieve the initial attack aircraft.
With another winter of little meaningful rain or snow, California is once again heading into the worst fire season on record. With large winter wildfires already on the books, the state is moving away from a traditional summer fire season, and adjusting to the mindset that the entire year is now one never-ending season.
Covered in soot and stained with sweat, exhausted yet exhilarated by their efforts, the helitack crew is quiet on the flight back to base. There will be no time to shower or put up their feet. Sunset is still four hours away and the potential for another call-out is high. Gear has to be cleaned and prepped, and the helicopter needs to be made ready for the next mission in a continuous season of preparation for the next fight.