Amelia Walsh AOPA PILOT
GA Airports: Cal Fire’s Greatest Arsenal
August 27, 2020
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  • California wildfires displaced more than 136,000 residents and engulfed 1.4 million acres of land in what are considered some of the worst conditions the Golden State has ever seen. As aerial firefighting and emergency response continue, the role general aviation airports play is vital to local communities.

    The devastation was caused by lightning strikes from a series of intense thunderstorms and was exacerbated by hot temperatures and high wind. Spreading into the Sierra Nevada, and into regions surrounding the San Francisco Bay area, there are currently more than 600 fires blazing across the state. First responders have taken full advantage of Santa Clara County’s airports for refueling aircraft with fire retardant chemicals, rotating crews 24/7, performing ground maintenance, and utilizing the facilities as a home base.

    Spanning 179 acres and centrally located, San Martin Airport is well-equipped and no stranger to emergency scenarios and natural disasters like earthquakes and fires. On August 21, Cal Fire began the process to set up a helitack base at San Martin Airport to station between nine and 12 helicopters on the field. The airport’s parking ramp and the grass fields at the south end of the runway and taxiways are being used, and a temporary air traffic control tower will be brought in for safety during this response effort.

    The Cal Fire emergency response air program includes a fleet of Grumman S–2T 1,200-gallon airtankers, UH–1H Super Huey helicopters, and North American-Rockwell OV–10A  aircraft. According to the department, while both airtankers and helicopters are equipped to carry fire retardant or water, helicopters can also transport firefighter crews, equipment, and injured personnel, making the newly added helitack base at San Martin Airport a vital asset.

    Meanwhile, to the north, Reid-Hillview of Santa Clara County Airport is also playing a significant role in firefighting. Deployment of tanks for helicopter fire retardant refueling have been placed on the field and are being used by Cal Fire helicopters, which are able to fly during reduced visibility. While Cal Fire has a main base in Hollister, facilities like Reid-Hillview allow the department to cut travel time and therefore save more homes, land, and wildlife.

    Unfortunately, Reid-Hillview has continually been targeted by officials in Santa Clara County who are actively planning to close the airport in order to develop the land for housing. County supervisors have gone as far as to stop accepting federal Airport Improvement Fund grants for airport upkeep—a first step toward closing the airport as officials believe declining the funds would start a clock running toward the expiration of grant obligations and a closure date of 2031.

    As the major reliever airport to Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, Reid-Hillview draws an estimated 165,000 annual operations. It also has numerous thriving businesses including nine FBOs, flight schools, and the San Jose State University aviation program.

    Kenny Behlen, a pilot and resident of Santa Clara County, expressed his frustration with elected officials who have failed to see the value the airport brings to the community. In a Facebook message to the community, Behlen wrote, “Please be safe and please stress to our local representatives the importance assets like Reid-Hillview airport are for our community. While in normal times it may not seem necessary, it is during these horrific moments in time that their true value is shown to us. The additional risk we all face by removing vital infrastructure is something our elected representatives need to take seriously.”