Cal Fire pilots on their own due to shutdown

September 25, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Cal Fire is fully staffed and ready to go for this current Red Flag Warning that is expected to last until Saturday 6 a.m. Most of the state is still in fire season, but if the federal government shutdown goes on for too long, it could jeopardize the response to a major wildfire.

It is interesting watching these directly affected by a Red Flag Warning. We watched Cal Fire pilots who help put out brushfires go on four separate calls while we were there in a three-hour period.

They knew it was coming... on a red flag fire day, it was not a matter of if, but when they would go out. That's what the men and women of Cal Fire's Sonoma Airport Base had been telling us just moments before.

One pilot told us "things can change in a minute" and another said, "It's no different than firemen in a fire station. We're just waiting to slide down the pole, we just don't have one."

So on a red flag day, when a puff of wind tickles those flags on a flagpole, the pilots who fly the planes take notice. They are the ones that drop the orange retardant on California wildfires. They have had a busy, busy summer.

And since the budget impasse in Washington, they have been on their own -- without help from the California National Guard -- which helps service firefighting planes including the large, DC-10 tanker flying out of Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento.

"For us to be able to sustain operations, to support the fleet and have those aircraft ready to go at a moment's notice... they're absolutely critical," said California National Guard Lt. Col. Tom Keegan. He took the rare stance of voicing his frustration, as half his staff has gone home on furlough at the start of California's most dangerous firefighting month. "A lot of our logistical support, air craft maintenance support and the backbone of our operational support will be missing."

That leaves Cal Fire to go it alone. On red flag days like this, they always keep planes at the ready, no more than 20 minutes flying time from any point in the state.

Bill Buckley has been flying for four decades. He says his personal record in a six hour period is 29 air drops. Especially now, in a 10-hour shift, its scramble first, ask questions later. His badly dented thermos can describe what kind of flying he does. He modestly said, "We bounce around a lot."

You can get weather alerts and our live radar throughout the Red Flag Warning period by downloading the ABC7 News Weather app.


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