As if 2020 had not dealt the United States enough grief so far this year, a disastrous late summer wildfire season on the West Coast in California, Oregon, and Washington has scorched millions of acres and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. Heroic ground crews are working numerous fires right now, saving structures and lives. Their work is being supported from the air by a large fleet of state-owned and contractor fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, providing critical Air Attack retardant and water drops with pinpoint accuracy.
2020 has been such a busy wildfire year, complete statistics for aviation assets, ground crews, and acres burned have not been compiled by each state’s Public Information Officers as the situation has changed by the hour. What follows are some available late details of the Air Attack fight going on right now in the West.
Nearly 19,000 firefighters remained on the frontlines of 27 major wildfires in California as of September 18, 2020, according to CAL FIRE. Milder weather last week helped the firefight as crews continue to gain ground on many of the major incidents, including the August Complex Fire in the Mendocino National Forest area of Tehama County, which had burned 824,118 acres and was only 30 percent contained. However, strong Santa Ana winds from the east intensified the Bobcat and El Dorado fires in the San Gabriel mountain range east of the Los Angeles metro area, and ground crews put out the call for more Air Attack help.
Since the beginning of the year, CAL FIRE said there have been over 7,900 wildfires that have burned over 3.5 million acres in the state, with over 6,100 structures destroyed. In nearly all of these fires, Air Attack assets played a key role in saving lives and structures.
CAL FIRE’s Air Attack Program fleet of more than 50 fixed-wing and rotorcraft makes it the largest department-owned fleet of aerial firefighting equipment in the world. The program’s Air Attack assets are strategically-located throughout the state at 12 airbases and 10 helicopter bases. CAL FIRE in its current form is a long evolution from the 1950s, when the program began using agriculture-spraying airplanes to drop water on fires.
As the program has evolved to include faster and larger air tankers such as the Boeing 747 Global SuperTanker 944 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 Tanker 911, CAL FIRE has adopted heavy use of faster, more modern air tactical aircraft such as the North American Rockwell OV-10A Bronco and Beechcraft King Air 200. The tactical job becomes critical because the DC-10-30 air tankers carry 9,400 gallons of fire retardant, can reach “return and refill” speeds of 380 knots, and have a drop speed of 140 knots.
CAL FIRE began using contractor-owned helicopters for fire control in the mid-1960s, until 1981 when the program obtained 12 Bell UH-1F series helicopters from the US Air Force. CAL FIRE eventually began to phase out the “F” models and upgraded to newer, larger UH-1H helicopters that were significantly modified to meet the department’s specialized needs. The modified helicopters were designated as Super Hueys, with a current fleet of 10 assigned helicopters and two fully operational spares. CAL FIRE also flies a large number of other small helicopters such as the Kaman K-MAX and AH-1 Firewatch”Cobra, and large two-engine rotorcraft such as the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, Boeing-Vertol 107 Vertol and Boeing 234 Chinook as state-owned or contractor assets.
According to the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) fire report for Friday, September 18, ODF was closely monitoring 10 major fires in Oregon, with more than 6,500 personnel assigned to these fires from across the nation and Canada. About 1 million acres have burned in Oregon since the start of this year, which is nearly double the 10-year average of approximately 557,811. Actual number of state and contract air assets were not available at press time because of what one spokesperson called a “rapidly evolving situation every day.”
Media reports from Oregon describe a horrible air quality situation for both residents and firefighters. A high-pressure system parked over the eastern Pacific Ocean held smoke close to the ground above all major Oregon fires, grounding much of the Air Attack and Tactical fleet in the state.
In Washington state, Michael Cuthbert, aviation safety manager, Wildfire Division for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the Wildfire Division is having a record year in fleet deployments. “At one point, we had 37 aircraft at our peak in early September. That is a record from 2018 where we had 30 at our peak. We started the season in May ratcheting up our footprint from one to 10 DNR-operated Bell UH-1 Hueys. By mid-June, all were in place, with our Bell 206 also added this year, and two KMAX type 1 heavy-lift helicopters were in operation by July.”
Cuthbert added that the Wildfire Division’s Air Attack operations were augmented at different times by three Aero Commanders, two Canadair CL-215s, one Kodiak, and a Partenavia for detection and reconnaissance. The Washington Air National Guard also provided two Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks for aerial firefighting and one Eurocopter UH-72 Lakota.
More information on becoming an aerial firefighting pilot can be found here.
Authors note: The author of this article lives in Eugene, Oregon, just 25 miles from the western perimeter of the over 170,000 acre Holiday Farm Fire that destroyed the entire town of Blue River, Oregon, in the scenic McKenzie River drainage. Smoke from this fire and several others in the state have choked Oregon residents for days, with an EPA Air Quality Index (AQI) as high as 622 at one point last week. That scale’s “hazardous” range starts at 300 and goes to 500, where the scale stops. The toxic air has been literally off the charts, but a cold front and thunderstorms pushed in from the Pacific Ocean late last week and blew the smoke eastward. The highly-convective airmass however further complicated the safe operation of firefighting assets from the air.