‘It will change how we operate’: Cal Fire buys first helicopters that can fight fires at night

SACRAMENTO - Facing wildfires of epic proportions, California’s firefighting agency is acquiring nearly $300 million worth of new weapons: a dozen high-powered helicopters equipped to drop water on flaming woodlands and fields in darkness, manned by pilots wearing night vision goggles.

One of the Cal Fire Hawks, a sleek, twin-engine helicopter that cruises at 160 mph and costs $24 million, will be based in June at the Vina Helitack Base on Highway 99 north of Chico in Tehama County. It’s capable of reaching Lake Berryessa in 30 minutes, with eight firefighters aboard and 1,000 gallons of water in a tank on its belly.

That’s 15 minutes faster and three times more water than the Vietnam War-era Super Huey copters that will be replaced over time by a modified version of the Sikorsky Black Hawk flown by U.S. forces and others around the world.

“It’s an exciting time for Cal Fire,” said Dennis Brown, senior chief of aviation based at McClellan Airport in Sacramento. “It will change how we operate.”

The agency, with 23 aircraft bases statewide - including at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, Boggs Mountain in Lake County, Ukiah Municipal Airport and Howard Forest in Willits - is also acquiring, at no cost, seven former Coast Guard C-130 air tankers.

The C-130s, larger and faster than Cal Fire’s 23 Grumman S-2T tankers, will augment the fleet of 54 aircraft, which the agency says is the world’s largest fire department-owned fleet.

There’s so much training required for pilots and crews to handle the highly automated Hawks, along with establishing round-the-clock staffing, that nighttime firefighting operations are a year or two away, Brown said. No matter the advances in equipment, Cal Fire is averse to adding risks to an already hazardous operation.

Larry Groff of Windsor and another pilot, Lars Stratte of Redding, were killed when their Cal Fire air tankers collided over a fire near Hopland in 2001.

“Flying at night has its own set of hazards,” said Brown, who worked for 38 years as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter, supervisor and aviation safety officer and joined Cal Fire in 2009 after a mandatory federal retirement.

The pilot’s green-tinted view of the ground lacks detail, and the goggles afford no peripheral vision. There’s scant margin for error with helicopters operating at 500 feet and dropping water at about 50 feet over rugged terrain with obstacles including power lines.

The Super Hueys could fly at night, but Cal Fire decided against using the 50-year-old single-engine copters for firefighting or rescues in darkness, Brown said. With the arrival of the Hawks, the agency has the first nighttime capacity since the aviation program began with converted crop dusters deployed as air tankers in the 1950s.

The $288 million purchase came at an opportune time, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district has been hit by seven major wildfires since 2015.

“It’s about damn time we’re making these new investments,” he said, calling the Hawks “game changers that can help us combat this new reality of megafires.”

Despite the rash of calamitous Northern California wildfires since 2015, McGuire said it took “an enormous push” to secure funding for the new helicopters. In the last five years, wildfires have scorched more than 5 million acres in California, an area larger than Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties combined.

“It has become crystal clear that the status quo has become unacceptable,” he said. “All of us know what a relief it is to see our aerial cavalry arrive.”

On large wildfires, there can be 20 or more helicopters aloft, along with a dozen or more fixed-wing tankers and air tactical supervisors in three small single-engine aircraft directing the air assault through radio contact with pilots and firefighters on the ground.

Tankers are the backbone of the operation, spreading bright pink retardant ahead of the flames to coat fuel and slow the blaze. Helicopters are the ribs, dropping water to extinguish the fire as dozers and ground crews work below, Brown said.

“You gotta have both,” he said. “It’s crowded up there.”

During the Kincade fire last year, Cal Fire reported helicopters had dropped 2 million gallons of water and air tankers had unleashed 1 million gallons of retardant.

Wildfires sometimes die down at night, with lower temperatures and lighter winds affording “an ideal time to attack the fire,” said Jake Serrano, Cal Fire battalion chief at the Sonoma County airport helitack base.

The Hawks, equipped with a hoist and a 250-foot cable for rescues, give Cal Fire “a weapon it never had before,” he said.

Whether the high-tech copters would have made a difference during the wind-whipped Kincade fire in October or the deadly Tubbs fire of 2017 is uncertain. Rough air is a consideration, in addition to wind velocity, Brown said, noting the downwind side of a ridge often has severe turbulence.

A helicopter can fly in 40 mph wind, but the water or retardant it releases would be whipped into a light mist, rendering it ineffective at fire suppression. Ultimately, pilots determine whether they can safely fly and help stop the fire, Brown said.

Wind gusts reached 76 mph in the hills where the Kincade fire broke out near Geyserville, and winds up to 60 mph drove the Tubbs fire from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in about four hours, forcing firefighters to focus on rescuing residents rather than battling the blaze.

The new copters will be deployed over the next two to three years, with the Boggs Mountain and Howard Forest helitack bases on the delivery list. Nighttime operations will be conducted from Vina and four other bases in Santa Clara, San Benito, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The first Hawk, numbered CF 903, arrived in November and is undergoing maintenance and pilot and crew training in a cavernous, nearly 100,000-square-foot hangar with a bright, white epoxy floor at McClellan Airport, home to Cal Fire’s Aviation Management Unit since 2002.

Workers for DynCorp International, the private company that provides maintenance of Cal Fire’s fleet and pilots for the fixed-wing aircraft, were swarming last week over the Hawk, one of three C-130s and other aircraft as winter maintenance was in full swing.

“Summer’s pretty boring here,” a worker said.

The C-130s, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft in service around the world for more than 60 years, also represent a major upgrade for Cal Fire. The seven tankers, originally intended for the U.S. Forest Service, were diverted to California at no cost to the state, along with $150 million worth of engines, propellers, wheels and other spare parts and 4,000-gallon tanks installed in their spacious cargo bays.

They dwarf the twin-engine S-2Ts, the longtime mainstay of the Cal Fire fleet, in speed, power and most importantly more than three times the retardant carrying capacity. The S-2Ts will remain in service, and the first of the C-130s is expected to be ready for duty in the middle of 2021.

When members of California’s congressional delegation wrote to then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2018 urging prompt delivery of the C-130s, their letter said: “These firefighting aircraft are absolutely vital to California’s efforts to combat the increasingly deadly wildfires that threaten our constituents.”

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