CAL FIRE, the Next Stage

The California firefighting agency has recently been tasked to fight some of the biggest fires in its history, with its ageing aerial S-2T air tanker fleet. Alan Warnes discovers why it may have to alter its future strategy to cope with the additional workload.

Last December, the world watched on as another round of wildfires burnt California. In what is becoming an increasingly worrying trend, huge swathes of land, this time in the southern part of the state was being devastated by fire. Unfortunately, it went on to become the biggest in the Sunshine State’s living history.

California burnt for most of December, which meant hundreds of firefighters were risking their lives, while most of us were enjoying the Christmas festivities. All this after similar scenes had affected the wine-rich Napa Valley, for three weeks in October.

Massive airliner-types, like 10 Tanker’s DC-10s and Global SuperTanker’s Boeing 747, dropped thousands of gallons of retardant to extinguish the flames below. They had been called in by the California Department of Forest and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) which is tasked with confronting these blazes. It was created in 1905 to serve and safeguard the people and properties across 31 million acres in California. Disasters are its main business, and while they play a big part in fighting fires, it has also extended its expertise to providing relief from earthquakes, floods, and even pipeline explosions.

Building one of the world’s biggest firefighting fleets
Combating the ravages of these fires, often on a disastrous scale, has seen CAL FIRE build up the second biggest aerial firefighting fleets in the USA. It is second only to the US Forestry Service (USFS) and can call upon over 50 aircraft, made up of air tankers, helicopters, and air attack aircraft. They comprise 22 S-2T Turbo Trackers, 12 UH-1H Hueys, 15 OV-10A Broncos, two King Air A200CTs and a pair DynCorp Cobras. DynCorp International is contracted to provide the 52 pilots and 90 maintenance personnel for CAL FIRE’s fixed-wing operations, with the bulk of the maintenance work carried out at its Sacramento air base.

The agency, previously known as the California Department of Forestry (CDF) acquired 23 S-2E/G Trackers in 1996 from former US Navy stocks and contracted Mesa-based Marsh Aviation to convert them to the S-2T Turbo air tanker. Work saw the torpedo bay converted into a 1,200-gallon tank to houses the retardant dropped on the fires. With a new Honeywell TPE 331 turbine engine, the aircraft’s cruising speed was increased by Marsh from 150 mph to 280 mph, and general performance, especially in hot weather, improved. The Turbo Tracker also has an increased endurance of up to five hours – and as most flights only last 30 minutes, this improved endurance, coupled with the rapid reloading, means the aircraft can operate many trips to a fire before needing to be refueled.

Its main advantage over the larger air tankers is its ability to operate from smaller airfields and is rated to be flown by a single pilot, offering further cost savings. The upgrades mean the Tracker air tankers, built originally in the 1950/60s are set to be around for a while, with the last three entering service in 2005.

Unfortunately, one of the aircraft, N449DF (formerly 152838), was involved in a fatal crash, which claimed the life of the pilot Geoffrey ‘Craig’ Hunt, while fighting the Dog Rock Fire, in the Yosemite National Park on October 7, 2014. Mr Craig had served DynCorp International for 13-years before his untimely death.

CAL FIRE’s ‘Project X’ is now underway by DynCorp to convert one of the three spare S-2E/G Trackers into the S-2T version using some parts from the lost aircraft, to swell the fleet back to 23, which has just had its first dry run at McClellan, Sacramento. During the firefighting season, they are deployed to one of CAL FIRE’s 14 forward operating bases.

Flying alongside CAL FIRE’s air tankers are more ex-US Navy/Marines aircraft, in the shape of 15 OV-10A Broncos acquired in 1993. Once used in the counter-insurgency (COIN) role attacking enemy soldiers, they now spend most of their time attacking fires, guiding in the very large tankers. Being fast, highly maneuverable and with a large cockpit provides the two-man crew with a larger field of view they are ideal for the job. The 12 veterans UH-1H Hueys are used for a fast initial attack on wildfires, but they are set to be replaced within a few years or so, probably by the Sikorsky S-70i. The Hueys can fly nine-man fire crews wherever they are needed as well being fitted with 320-gallon bambi-buckets. For the last 20 years, rear-crew members have also been trained to take on short-haul rescues, where they are lowered from the helicopter to pick up the injured or trapped person. Two King Air B200s operate with ATGS (Air Tactical Group Supervisor) personnel on board, who ensure all the air traffic battling the fires is de-conflicted. The skies can get very cluttered so the ATGS plays a very important role. Two of the more unique helicopters flown by CAL FIRE are a pair of ex-Vietnam era AH-1s. They are equipped with a Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) turrets which can peer through the smoke billowing from the fire. Having such a system, mounted under the nose allows the rear-seater to map the fire and downlink the data for maps for the firemen on ground and water-bombers in the air. As well as providing the latter with the intelligence to concentrate on putting out the flames and hot areas of the fire, the S-2T pilots can see where to drop retardant in a bid to stem the fires.

Longer term CAL FIRE has some serious decisions to make. Will it stick with the older smaller S-2Ts or go for Larger Air Tankers (LATs)? There is some speculation it may look at redundant C-130s, stored in the Arizona desert at Davis Monthan AFB, which could be converted with Coulson Retardant Air Delivery (RAD) tanks. There are several other options too, like the Neptune Aviation BAe 146 that can carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. CAL FIRE already knows a lot about this aircraft as it has been using one on an exclusive use contract since the S-2T was lost in 2014. The main consideration, of course, has to be the budget, which in the aerial firefighting world is continually being squeezed. But with the wild fires getting bigger, CAL FIRE may have to consider increasing the capacity of its own air tanker fleet. At the same time, it could have a detrimental effect on the aerial firefighting companies that rely on their Large Air Tanker work to survive.

CAL FIRE is supporting the Aerial Firefighting North America Conference, taking place on 12 – 14 March 2018 in Sacramento, California. Chief Ken Pimlott, Director of CAL FIRE is delivering the Welcome Address, opening the conference on 12th March. To view the programme, visit