A dozen extra firefighting planes and helicopters joined CalFire last week. Each has taken to the air since in what's shaping up as California's worst fire year ever.
The air assets, a mix of planes and choppers, aren't exactly new, but state officials brought the privately-owned craft on early this year, based on predictions. Positioned at small airfields around California, they are part of CalFire's mission to get aircraft to a fire within 20 minutes of the first report.
These aircraft aren't the ones that put the fire out. All they do is slow it down and buy time for the ground crews to get there.
Stu Sprung is Chief of Flight Operations at CalFire. He said quick response times allow firefighters on the ground before 95 percent of fires reach 10-acres.
Sprung says helicopters are equally valuable. Their slow speed helps pilots make accurate drops. Most can descend and scoop water from a lake and make multiple drops in the time it takes a plane to return to base, be refilled with retardant and make another run.
And Calfire is in the process of converting seven Coast Guard C-130s---the big military air freighters---into firefighting aircraft. They should be coming on line in the months ahead.
"They're tailor made for these kind of rugged missions. These are cargo planes, they are designed to drop thousands of pounds out of their cargo door, so much similar to what we do with our tankers. The C-130s we'll be getting will be dropping 4,000 gallons of retardant, he said." They can also take off and land on shorter runways, meaning they can be positioned closer to fire-prone areas and reach them faster.
There are also plans to tackle one of aerial firefighting's biggest Achilles' heels: flying sorties after dark. Vast unlit rural areas, rugged mountainous terrain and unseen powerlines present tremendous risks to low-flying firefighting aircraft.
"Our plan is to get comfortable, getting the pilots current with the night vision goggles and also instrument flying. we will have a program where we'll be able to also participate in night firefighting," Sprung said.
Sprung says that will probably take another year or two.