The Pilots Who Fight California’s Wildfires
With a squadron of ancient airplanes, these firefighters are usually the first on the scene.
There are days here when you walk outside and just know. Step on a stick and it snaps. Grass crunches underfoot. It’s hot, and the relative humidity is down in the single digits. If there’s a fire that day, Cal Fire battalion chief Justin McGough says, “You just know it’s going to burn very, very well.”
But today is not that day, as I step one winter morning onto Cal Fire’s Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base in Hemet, California. To the east, Mount San Jacinto is topped with fresh snow, and ample rainfall has relieved most of the state’s drought. Here at Hemet-Ryan, which remains open year-round, firefighting aircraft out on the ramp mark time quietly in the sun.
Cal Fire—the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—is a state agency responsible for fire control across 31 million acres of timberland, brush, and urban forest. With 50 aircraft at 23 bases around the state, it has the largest firefighting air force in the world. Hemet-Ryan hosts a little of everything in Cal Fire’s standard contingent: a Bell UH-1H Super Huey helicopter, two Grumman S-2T tankers, and a North American Aviation OV-10A tactical observation aircraft. Crews at Hemet dispatch to fires from the San Bernardino mountains, near Los Angeles, all the way south to the Mexican border.
Energetic and forthright, McGough doesn’t come across as a man content to “manage” drawn-out wildfires. “We’re really big on initial attack firefighting here,” he says. Whether it’s a vague report of smoke from the trees or a brush fire poised to double in size, “One call and we’re dispatching 10 fire engines, two bulldozers, four hand crews, and a full complement of firefighting aircraft right from the get-go.”
Airplanes are deployed to arrive less than 20 minutes after the initial call, the window of opportunity when emerging wildfires can often be put down with an aggressive punch. Frequently, Cal Fire air units are the sole firefighting resource on-site during that critical time frame.
Between 2013 and 2018, approximately 5.4 percent of California’s total acreage was aflame at one time or another. One measure of the agency’s success is the fact that most Californians never heard about the overwhelming majority of these conflagrations. “We keep all our fires at 10 acres or less, 90 percent of the time,” Fire Captain Richard Cordova says.
Last year, the other 10 percent of California fires made news around the world. One of the most infamous, the 2018 Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills, was one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Although pilot Dave Kelly responded within an hour of the first report, flying a sturdy Grumman S-2 tanker to drop retardant on the flames, he found that he was powerless against the raging winds that accompanied the first spark.
“It looked like a volcano had gone off,” says Kelly. “When you start seeing it looking like a volcano, that means there’s a lot of intensity and the fire’s burning really hot.” The winds were so high and terrain so rough that dropping retardant was at first impossible, and when the winds subsided two hours later, it was too late. “I tried everything I could think of for at least 45 minutes around that thing,” says Kelly. “[For a drop], we need to be safe, effective, and efficient, and we weren’t any of the three.” He made nine flights over the fire on the first day, joined first by an OV-10 observation aircraft up high, then a low-level wind evaluator, and finally by a plethora of firefighting airplanes large and small. Despite their efforts, the fast-moving Camp Fire burned uncontrolled for 17 days, ending only after 85 deaths.
The lesson of that fire and others in the 10 percent is that aerial firefighters can fight fire effectively, but, like pilots in other endeavors, they can’t always fight weather. Still, one reason for Cal Fire’s success is the wide variety of tools it is able to deploy in the many situations it faces.
“All our aircraft come from the military,” says Cordova. “We get them for about one dollar, then convert them into what we need them for.”
Cal Fire’s Bell UH-1H Super Hueys bear little resemblance to the factory standard: The agency extended the tail boom; replaced the original engine, transmission, and blade system with higher-performance versions from a newer AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter; installed a water tank; and added medevac and hoist rescue capability.
“At this point, every one of our aircraft are better than the day they first rolled off the assembly line,” says Lucas Spelman, battalion chief of southern operations communications. “We’ve eliminated weaknesses, added larger motors, completely rewired them, and reinforced them to be stronger and more nimble.”
Another requirement critical to aerial firefighting also favors the pre-owned alternative: “Most new planes made today simply do not fly slow enough for our use,” Spelman explains.
* * *
“Working fire is about as close to flying combat as you can get without being shot at,” says former U.S. Army Cobra pilot Cliff Walters. Walters flies the UH-1H based at Hemet-Ryan, one of 12 Super Hueys Cal Fire operates. In a typical deployment, the UH-1H multitasks as a ground crew transport in addition to its water-dropping role. A Huey can also evacuate injured personnel and perform hoist rescues. It is often the fastest responder on the base, frequently airborne within just three minutes of receiving a call from the Cal Fire Emergency Command Center. “We’re only limited by how fast I can get my boots on and get out there,” Walters says.
Ground crew deployment comes first. From then on, the safety and support of those ground firefighters is his dominant concern. However, the UH-1H lacks the power to heft a tank of water plus a ground crew. Once boots are on the ground, Walters says, “I go looking for water.”
He has flown this area for 30 years and knows where to find it: reservoirs, lakes, ponds, rivers. The 14-foot-long snorkel dangling from the Huey can suck up a full tank of water in about 30 seconds. No source is off limits when a wildfire is raging. “I’ve never taken water out of someone’s swimming pool,” Walters says. “But I know it’s been done.”
Fixed-wing tankers lay down lines of retardant mix outside the burning zone, but helicopters dump water directly on flames, usually from an altitude of just 75 to 100 feet. While stationary vertical “spot drops” are sometimes used to bomb a specific target, such as a structure threatened by flames, Walters says, “More often, I’m dropping along a path, flying at about 50 knots.” The Huey’s tank integrates three doors, pilot-controllable to adjust the water volume of the drop. Making that calculation, Walters says, is an art.
Upgrades notwithstanding, Cal Fire’s UH-1 fleet is aging fast. During the last fire season, Walters’ 1969-built Huey suffered a hydraulic failure over brush terrain near the Mexican border. Cal Fire is now taking delivery of the first of 12 Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks, purchased to replace the aging UH-1Hs. Based on the military UH-60 Black Hawk, the Firehawk is engineered and factory-built specifically for firefighting. It’s chock-full of capabilities, including night vision goggles.
Can the advanced $24 million Firehawk fill the Huey’s utilitarian shoes in rough-and-ready, day-to-day fire attack? “Personally, that remains to be seen,” Walters says. “The Huey’s the Ford pickup truck. I don’t know if it does anything great, but it does everything good.”
When I ask about the major risk factor in piloting the S-2T air tanker, Mike Venable’s reply is succinct: “Proximity to the ground.”
Introduced in the 1950s, the piston-powered Grumman S-2 Tracker served on aircraft carriers as a submarine-hunter until the 1970s. Cal Fire acquired 23 S-2E variants in 1996 and converted the rugged airplanes into firefighting S-2Ts, with more powerful turboprop engines, extended wingspan, and a 1,200-gallon tank capacity. Today it’s the agency’s mainstay for precise fire retardant delivery.
While Cal Fire helicopter pilots are state employees, the agency’s fixed-wing aircraft are all flown by contractor DynCorp International, which supplies both pilots and maintenance personnel for the tankers and OV-10A spotter airplanes. In the pilot’s office at Hemet-Ryan, Venable and fellow pilot Phil Johnston talk about the perspective from the tanker cockpit.
Experienced pilots can appraise a fire’s potential at a glance. Directed by a controller in the OV-10A spotter plane, tankers drop vivid pink retardant slurry directly on flames for fire suppression or lay down retardant paths on yet-unburned areas to inhibit the fire’s advance. The S-2T releases retardant about 150 feet above the top of vegetation at 125 to 130 knots airspeed. Volume and flow rate are programmed on a panel in the S-2T cockpit; small grass fires, for example, rate a lighter release, while thicker vegetation—like buckwheat—gets a heavy dousing, designed to soak the ground. Tankers returning to the base for a retardant refill are “hot-loaded” (engines running) and generally back in the air five minutes later.
“We fly down into all types of terrain,” Venable says. “Shallow canyons, deep canyons. We drop retardant down steep slopes and way up on ridge lines. Any terrain configuration you can imagine, we’re going to try to get down into it.”
The art of low-altitude retardant drops isn’t among standard procedures for most pilots. “Some people say it looks like a typical landing approach,” Johnston says. “It’s really not.” For the extra lift provided by more air over the wings, aircraft generally land into the wind. Over rough terrain, however, S-2T pilots frequently steer the 30,000-pound tanker downwind on very low passes to drop retardant, flying at close to minimum safe airspeed. The risk of an aerodynamic stall is considerable, and at such low altitude, recovery is impossible. Poor visibility due to smoke and turbulence caused by convection from the fire add to the hazard.
“You fly every drop like your life depended on it,” Jim Barnes says. “If not, you ought to reevaluate why you’re risking your life for a pile of brush on a hillside.”
Recently retired after 35 years in air tankers, Barnes was among Cal Fire’s first S-2T pilots and later an instructor in the aircraft. Give him a minute and he can recite a lengthy list of tanker pilots who died flying missions for various fire agencies. “We used to kill an S-2 pilot every other year,” he says of those bygone “bad old days.” Today, Barnes emphasizes, safety is paramount, pilot training is extensive, and aircraft are meticulously maintained. Still, he says flying tankers can be “as dangerous as you want to make it.”
While the official minimum for a retardant drop is 150 feet, “your unofficial minimum might turn out to be much lower,” Barnes says. “When you’re diving deep into Tujunga Canyon, how can you tell?” As terrain closes in, standard flight instruments provide mainly distraction. “At that point, I’m not even looking at anything inside the cockpit anymore,” he says. “All those gauges mean absolutely nothing to me if I smack into a tree.”
If lives on the ground are in imminent danger, standard safety guidelines usually don’t apply. “That’s the time you really hang it all out there,” Barnes says. During the 2015 Valley Fire in northern California, a ground crew found themselves down in a canyon, threatened by wind-whipped flames. “We had a helicopter down there trying to find them,” Barnes says. “Finally, we just decided, ‘We gotta take our best shot.’ ”
Dropping retardant to douse the threat required a flight path directly through a wall of fire with zero visibility and vicious updrafts. “You could only guess where you might come out the other side,” Barnes says. As the tankers entered the fireball above the crew’s assumed location, the OV-10A spotter orbiting above lost sight of the aircraft.
“They couldn’t see us and we couldn’t see out. There was a huge bump, then total blindness. You make the drop. You pull back and go to max power and take the ride. Suddenly, you’re up in clear air again.” Tankers emerged from the inferno only to learn later that the blind retardant drops missed the ground crew. “Some were burned, some severely,” Barnes says grimly. “I’ve always felt bad that we couldn’t get to them that day.”
* * *
As an observation and counterinsurgency aircraft, the North American OV-10A Bronco flew from Vietnam through Desert Storm. Cal Fire acquired 15 of the veterans in 1993 and converted them for firefighting command and control. With a pilot up front and the Air Tactical Group Supervisor—a Cal Fire battalion chief—in the second seat, the OV-10 is an airborne air traffic control center.
“I truly have the best seat in the house,” Justin McGough says. Beneath the OV-10’s greenhouse canopy, he organizes participating firefighting aircraft into a “stack” in 1,000-foot increments above the fire traffic area. “Helicopters fly point to point,” McGough says, “So I’ll generally give them 500 feet and below.” The next thousand feet belongs to the S-2T tankers. A thousand feet above that, the OV-10A occupies the top of the stack.
With a panoramic perspective, the air group supervisor keeps airplanes out of one another’s way. He maintains a continuous view of S-2T tankers orbiting below and directs them into retardant drops, ensuring the exit path is free of obstructions. He also gives tanker pilots post-drop feedback.
Pilot Kirk Chaney occupies the OV-10A’s front seat. His primary mission is to maintain the supervisor’s view of each tanker’s flight pattern to direct retardant drops. “Everything we do is about safety for the firefighting aircraft,” says Chaney. “I’m watching for any non-participating aircraft that might enter the area. I’m looking out for drones. I’m looking for power lines, cell towers, antennas.” He’s also alert for changing conditions like sudden wind shifts that could endanger crews on the ground. The OV-10A cockpit integrates six radios to keep all air and ground assets talking to each other. “It stays pretty busy up there,” Chaney says.
Meanwhile, the fire below creates its own micrometeorology. Updrafts are strong enough to loft debris to altitudes where it could damage aircraft. Smoke infiltrates the cockpit. Should they accidentally punch into the soaring column of heat over a fire, McGough says, “We might get a thousand-foot altitude gain literally in a matter of seconds.”
Cal Fire’s air units are often the first responders on the scene and also the first to leave. Ground crews and bulldozers administer the coup de grâce.
The OV-10A is usually the last aircraft to depart as the supervisor wraps up with the commander on the ground. “I’ll leave him a helicopter if he needs it to continue to suppress the fire,” McGough says.
* * *
Cal Fire air units respond to more than 3,500 wildfires in an average year, and sometimes the agency itself calls for help. It often contracts other airplanes for a fire season—a Coulson Aviation C-130 Hercules is under contract now, for example—and it can get more help from its friends.
First on the list is the U.S. Forest Service, which has its own varied fleet. If more airplanes are needed, the state of California can dispatch Army National Guard helicopters, water buckets dangling underneath, or the Air National Guard (ANG), which provides C-130s kitted out with the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). In a truly extraordinary situation, airplanes from other states and even Canada heed the call.
Flying a MAFFS-equipped C-130 means reckoning with a fully loaded airplane while approaching a fire at 120 knots—uncomfortably close to stall speed—then dropping retardant, which brings a sudden shift in weight and balance. The Hercules often flies behind a smaller airplane that traces a flight path and tells the tanker when to drop its load, allowing the C-130 crew to concentrate on flying. Firefighting is reserved for the most experienced crews, says Colonel Andrew Miller, a pilot with the California ANG’s 115th Airlift Squadron.
“We try, obviously, not to fly through the flames, but I’ve had some lead pilots that basically made a field goal [with a] wall of flames on your left, on your right, and the lead pilot saying, ‘Trust me, I’ll take you through. We’ll come out the other side and make a left-hand turn,’ ” says Miller.
Most missions are a quick half-hour hop from the squadron’s base in Oxnard, and a single crew can make as many as eight flights a day.
“When we did the Carr Fire, we were operating out of the airport at Redding, and you could see the flames up over the hillside as we were getting retardant and fuel,” says Miller.
The 2018 Carr Fire began with a car’s flat tire and a spark from the wheel rim. Igniting an inferno doesn’t take much. Among the firefighters, hopes are high for a wet fall. But with weather trending warmer, the next catastrophic fire season probably isn’t far off.