Helicopter water drops help slow down Loma Fire

SAN MARTIN, Calif. (KGO) -- CAL FIRE has nearly 1,100 firefighters battling the Loma Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. About 30 of them are in the air, staffing helicopters and tankers.

It takes a great deal of coordination both on the ground and in the air to fight a wildfire. In fact, it was a CAL FIRE helicopter pilot who first spotted the Loma Fire and called it in when it broke out Monday afternoon. At this time the fire has charred 2,865 acres and is 22 percent contained.

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You may have seen helicopters over the Loma Fire dropping buckets of water, ranging from 200 to 2,600 gallons. Dan Clark has been a CAL FIRE pilot for 13 years and explained how that's helping. "We're just trying to slow it down. The aircraft don't put out fires, we just slow it down, so the guys on the ground with their tools and their water hoses actually can put the fire out," Clark said.

The ground attack he's describing is supported by 15 helicopters at a quickly assembled helibase at San Martin Airport. A CAL FIRE helicopter is based at Alma Station next to Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos. The others there belong to contractors who have joined the firefighting effort from all over the state and Oregon.

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A 100 to 200 foot long line is attached to an empty bucket. It's filled at a nearby lake or reservoir on the way to the fire. The goal is to make a precise drop. "Yeah, everybody misses. We try to do the best we can with wind shifts and sometimes in canyons and sometimes places that you just can't get to, you know we're all human," Clark said.

The bucket has a registered name. It's called Bambi Bucket and was created by a Canadian company. The water is released through a valve. "The weight of the water kind of keeps that valve closed, fills the bucket, when you want to release it, you hit the electrical release and it releases this cable and the valve kind of falls out the bottom," Clark said.

All this air traffic has to be coordinated on the ground first. "Certified by the FAA, but they're able to coordinate the air space on the ground and we actually have a helicopter coordinator that flies over the fire and he works as the air traffic controller in the air to maintain visual separation, so we don't have any incidents," California Wildfires CAL FIRE helibase manager Andrew Summut said.

Evacuations were lifted Wednesday afternoon for all Santa Cruz County residents, but road closures remain in effect for non-residents.

The official count for destroyed or damaged homes remains at two, with an additional six out-buildings destroyed. CAL FIRE says that number could go up.

Firefighters are working 24 hour shifts and they are hoping to have the fire contained by Monday.

For evacuees who want to get their large animals out of harm's way, two centers have been set up to take them in. Horses can be taken to the Graham Hill Showgrounds in Santa Cruz or the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville.

RELATED: Horses, alpacas evacuated from Santa Cruz Mountains

If you have other animals, please call ahead to see if they can take them.

Evacuations have been lifted for Santa Cruz County residents.

Road closures:

Rancho Prieta Road
Loma Prieta Way
Pacific Rim
Mt. Bachi Road
Summit Road
Haven Hill Lane
Ormsby Cutoff/Trail

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