CAL FIRE shows off new aircraft and technology to battle wildfires

Karina Nova Image
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
CAL FIRE shows off new aircraft and technology
ABC7 has a behind-the-scenes look at the new equipment CAL FIRE is using to battle the flames.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As the temperatures heat up, so does the wildfire danger. But there's some help for CAL FIRE firefighters this summer.

ABC7 News anchor Karina Nova got a behind-the-scenes look at the new equipment CAL FIRE is using to battle the flames.

On a daily basis, two air tankers at CAL FIRE's Sonoma Air Attack base in Santa Rosa are ready.

Carrying retardant that's mixed and loaded on the base, they take off at a moment's notice.

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"The call comes in when we get a vegetation fire, the pilots come get their flight suits on and we're usually out of here in about 3-4 minutes," explains CAL FIRE Sonoma Air Attack Base Battalion Chief Jake Serrano.

Also on the base is a helitanker.

"This is the snorkel. They'll get over a water source, a lake creek stream, even an ocean. The snorkel will hover down over the water source and essentially draft water. It has I believe a 2,600-gallon capacity and it's done in less than a minute, and they're off to the fire," Serrano says.

Serrano flies in an air tactical plane, where he overseas air traffic control, gives target descriptions and talks to ground crews.

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From this base, they cover eight counties and can be deployed statewide if needed.

"We can get to a fire that's 10 miles away and 20 miles away in less than 10 minutes and make a big impact on the incident, maybe catching the fire small. Now seeing the destruction these fires have been doing, burning into cities, we order big and try it put it out quick," Serrano says.

As wildfires in California intensify in drought conditions, quick is key.

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This year, CAL FIRE is ramping up firefighting efforts with new aviation assets like the s70i Firehawk at Boggs Mountain Helitack Base in Middletown, California.

The Firehawk flies faster and drops more water.

Batallian Chief Bryan York says that allows ground crews to get better access and make more progress on a fire.

"The Firehawk has increased our capabilities in regards to payload and water dropping capabilities. So our previous helicopters or existing helicopters carry roughly 300 gallons of water and our new helicopters will carry 1,000 gallons of water. It takes approximately 45 seconds for them to pick up 1,000 gallons of water. Working with the ground crews where it's needed," York says.

By next fire season, York says all 10 bases in California will have a Firehawk.

Those air bases are strategically placed to get an aircraft on the scene of a fire in less than 20 minutes.

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This helicopter has already hit two major milestones while working the Electra fire in Amador and Calaveras counties in July.

The Firehawk was able to perform night time water drops and CAL FIRE used their drone, also referred to as Unmanned Aerial System Programs.

There's also newer technology being used by CAL FIRE.

The program "Tactical Analyst" tells planes where to go and gives personnel tactical information.

"This is saying that today's weather conditions and fuel conditions up there, the fire without any suppression will get to 959 acres within eight hours. There's 11 structures due west of the fire perimeter itself. The fire is going to be burning in an easterly south easterly direction," said Sonoma-Lake-Napa Division Chief Ben Nicholls, explaining how the program works.

He shows how the program provides a real-time snapshot of the CAL FIRE resources available and fire activity, like forward progress.

"The incident commander and air tactical group supervisor can coordinate their resources on the most critical part of the fire, where values at risk will be impacted most rapidly," Nicholls says.

The program also allows users to upload photos, giving more visuals of the fire.

It's all part of CAL FIRE's goal, to contain fires at 10 acres or less, protecting life and property with an aerial advantage, new technology and a rapid ground crew response.

"We could have all the aviation assets in the world, working on a fire and if we don't have the ground resources to complement that then we're not truly going to meet our objectives and containing fires at 10 acres or less," says York.

According to CAL FIRE, their fleet of over 60 fixed and rotary wing aircraft make it the largest civil aerial fighting fleet in the world.

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