Erik Anderson KPBS
Firefighters Use Air Fleet To Aid Wildfire Ground Battle
June 1, 2014
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  • Firefighters had their hands full when hot, dry, and windy conditions — a rarity in mid-May — fed a dozen San Diego wildfires.

    The plumes of smoke and burned out homes are the most memorable images of the fires, but those close to the flames likely also remember the constant drone of aircraft.

    More than 40 planes and helicopters logged time fighting fires around the county during that week.

    Ramona’s normally quiet air attack base was a hub of activity.

    “At one point we had nine air tankers here, a lead plane, four helicopters, two air attack planes, so that’s a lot,” said Cal Fire’s Mitchell Hubbard.

    He leaned over the map that dominates the center of the air traffic control room. It is key to calculating times and flight paths to fires. And there were lots of fires to track.

    “Carlsbad area right here along the coast Poinsettia, Cocos in San Marcos and then the Bernardo area,” he said, clicking off front-line battles.

    But fighting multiple fires effectively requires more than a map.

    It demands real-time information. The only way to get that is to deploy Cal Fire’s OV 10A Air Attack plane.

    Cal Fire Capt. Tim Stepanovich said the small turbo-prop craft circles above a fire and becomes a forward air traffic control station.

    “This will be my office right here. I have six radios that go live. I have a computer screen. And we have a camera system underneath the belly through MIT and Lincoln Labs.

    That’s a direct feed to my incident commanders with their (reinforced laptops),” Stepanovich said.

    The aerial pictures gave fire-incident commanders a view that they could not get on the ground. Seeing the incident from above allowed the forward air traffic controller to guide the flying firefighters. From his airborne perch, Stepanovich split the fire zone in half and deploys choppers on one side and fixed-wing planes on the other side.

    “It is a choreographed dance,” Stepanovich said. “Everything is stagger start. We know exactly who’s coming in. Who’s going out. We set up travel patterns and travel routes. Everything going to the fire at 3,000 feet. Everything coming home at 2,000 feet. We separate everything.”

    The dance was complicated because there were so many partners. City, county and state aircraft were here. The U.S. Forest service was flying. There were choppers from the Navy, Marines, and the California Air National Guard.

    The aircraft flew all day for most of the week, and a city of San Diego helicopter even battled the Cocos fire at night. Chris Heiser, San Diego Fire and Rescue’s chief of air operations, said the night flights are a major improvement over past firefighting efforts.

    “We were right next to the fire. So we could see fire behavior around us,” Heiser said. “As soon as the helicopter lifted off, we were in contact with the ground able to determine what the appropriate targets are for us to drop on in support of their operations.”

    The chopper’s two-person crew wore night vision goggles, which greatly amplify available light.

    “So we see everything on the ground,” Heiser said. “You can almost see every ember at times. So in some ways, you get a better situational awareness of where fire is and what its doing at night than during the day.”

    A parking lot near CSU San Marcos became a helipad. The San Diego crew flew dozens of missions from there.

    In the Cocos fire, parts of many structures — like porches — caught fire. “So our goal was to go in there and knock that down and then let the engine companies know we got a potential problem there,” San Diego helicopter pilot Chuck MacFarland said.

    The night-time flights were invaluable for gathering information. The helicopter helped an incident commander from outside the region understand exactly where the threat was.

    “Typically, the information they receive may be third-hand. It’s coming from maybe an air attack and maybe from pilots during the day,” MacFarland said. “He (the incident commander) actually got up there and got to see the fire at night, and got to see where the fire was presenting the most problems.”

    Even with night and day flying in smokey conditions over rugged terrain, there were no accidents. That’s good news for firefighters but the aerial attack was not perfect. County officials said the wildfires destroyed 79 buildings, damaged 40 others and caused $29.8 million in property damage.

    “We were successful, but we hate for the fire to get outside of our box,” Stepanovich said. “When we’re losing lives and property, we’re not doing our job.”

    Aircraft are great tools to slow the march of a fire, according to Stepanovich, but attacking the fire from the sky is no substitute for boots on the ground. Ultimately, it is firefighters dousing hotspots that put a fire out.