Daily Independent Journal from San Rafael, California on September 6, 1975 · Page 42
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Daily Independent Journal from San Rafael, California · Page 42

San Rafael, California
Issue Date:
Saturday, September 6, 1975
Page 42
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M2 ^nàfpenhftti-Jountal, Sat., Sept. 6, 1975 AN AIR TANKER from Sonoma streaks above a fire in the Marinwood hills on June 20, 1974, dropping a load of red retardant. As more and more homes are being built in or adjacent to wildlands, such as in the Marinwood and Lucas Valley area, the state Division of Forestry's aerial firefighters are being called on to protect life and private property. AS SOON AS Dispatcher Ron Matteoli, right, at the CDF Emergency Command Center in Santa Rosa, picks up the "green phone and is told Marin or another county needs air tankers, help is on the way. Within 15 to 20 minutes tankers from Sonoma or other nearby air attack bases are winging over Marin. Here Fire Capt. Jeff D. Hawkins, left, directs Command Center operator Patti Am Brosi to place a red arrow on the operations map designating the location of a fire. To her right, is the file containing cards coded to the map with such details as location of nearest air base, distance and flight bearings that enable the dispatchers to get aircraft safely into the skies. WITHIN SECONDS of being alerted by the Command Center, pilot Daniel McClure races to his S-2 tanker stationed at the Sonoma County Airfield north of Santa Rosa. McClure, a former Navy flyer who admits that firefighting is more harrowing thon his service flying, is one of five l' pilots stationed at the air attack base. The pilots are on standby daily from 10:45 a.m. until 45 minutes before sunset throughout the fire season. Fighting Continued from Page Ml County. The Boggs Mountain helitaek crew made its second appearance in Marin to join loca! firemen and other forestry atr and ground crews in fighting the July 24 Big Rock Ridge fire. Four young forestry firefighters and their fire captain spent more than two hours fighting the fire from above before landing in their aircraft in a field adjacent to the western end of Upper Lucas Valley’s Mount Rainier Drive. HERE THE THIRSTY and weary men talked for a few minutes with a small group of neighbors as their helicopter was loaded and reloaded every eight minutes with 120 gallons of water from a nearby hydrant to drop on the fire from low altitudes. According to Fire Capt. Michael (Mikei Aldous. a 15-year veteran with the forestry division, “a fast initial air attack with a small crew keeps a small lire small.” According to Fred Benton, helitaek crews have to be in ’’super physical condition. Sometimes there’s a lot of fire with not many people to handle it.”) Aldous said he and his men had been! working on a fireline in the Lake Berryessa area when they received the call to Marin to “backup” the Marinwood Fire Department. WHEN ASKED HOW low the helicopter would fly when dropping Its loads of water, he said “about 50 feet and any time an aircraft flies that low it can get into trouble.” As the young firefighters refreshed themselves, mopping their faces and refilling their canteens with water, a yellow bus pulled up nearby. Captain Aldous explained that the bus follows the helicopter, carrying 300 gallons of jet fuel and other supplies. As the copter returned to the field iof the final time to carry its crew back to the burning ridge above, a neighbor said. ‘ That’s hot, hard and dirty work.” Another added, “And dangerous.” One wall at the Santa Rosa Command Center is lined with speakers that keep personnel informed of aU lires within the region. OTHER WALLS ARE lined with maps of the region, the state and surrounding territory. Any time an aircraft is sent airborne, its location is marked on the state wide map. Any time a fire breaks out within the boundaries of the Region, its location is marked with a red arrow that is replaced by a yellow arrow when the fire is under control. All ranger units, stations and bases have card files, Benton explains, that are coded by number and letter (such as E 10) to a location on the operations map. When a fire is reported, the dispatcher, who usually works in a red upholstered chair at a radio table almost as long as the room, looks up the location on the map, also coded by number and letter. GOING TO A NEARBY card file, the dispatcher is able within a second to pull the corresponding card that has recorded on it such details as location of closest and second closest air base, distance in miles, flight bearings and all information pilots and crews need lor sale and speedy departures and arrivals. According to Jeff D. Hawkins, a 19- year veteran with the state who worked up through the ranks from lirefighter to fire captain and dispatcher, now stationed at the Command Center, he's never seen any agency — local, state, federal or fire district — ask for mutual aid and not get it. * And that works both ways,” he smiled. STATE FORESTRY planes and U.S. Forest Service planes often fly together. according to both Hawkins and Benton, and sometimes even exchange aircraft and operate joint bases. (All state aircraft carry both state and iedéral radios.) State planes, Benton says, that are sent in from other regions reload and refuel at the nearest attack bases. An afternoon might find tankers from Sonoma working in Butte. Madera and Monterey counties “before heading hbme.” Cross-country flying, according to Benton, is easier on the pilots than the short trips such as into Marin where the pilots drop a load, return to base, reload retardant and make a fast return. These short runs with numerous takeoffs and landings are taxing on the pilots and two of the flyers killed Fires By last year crashed while taking off. CALIFORNIA PLANES are some times even called upon to fight fires over the Oregon apd Nevada borders with these states reciprocating. Benton, former Airco in Lassen and Modoc counties, who has a commercial pilot’s license, explains that “Division of Forestry personnel are never paid as pilots.” Blots and aircraft are leased by the state from private companies such as the Sis Q Flying Service in Santa Rosa whose hangars and offices are adjacent to the Sonoma Air Attack Base. Sis Q supplies pilots and planes stationed at the Sonoma base as well as crews and 16 additional tankers for other bases located in California, Oregon. Arizona and South America. PLANES AND PILOTS are under contract to the state from July 1 to Oct. 15 or “until fall rains hit to end the season.” Then the planes are returned to home hangars for winter maintenance that both state and Sis Q people say is a “full-time job.” The two S-2s at Sonoma, according to Benton, have been converted to carry 800 gallons of a non-toxic fertiliz- * er, Diammonium or PhosChek. The third plane, the converted Super PBY (called the “boat”), carries 1,400 gallons. (Borate, a soil sterilant, according to Benton, has not been used in firefighting for years; still many mistaldngly call the state planes “borate bombers.”) RETARDANT IS usually dropped from 100 feet, .he says, “to let it disperse and come down like rain.” If dropped from lower levels, be adds, ”it has the effect of a mudball.” The tankers’ bellies are fitted with four tanks, be explains, and each tank carries 200 gallons of retardant. Pilots who control the doors from the cockpit can be ordered by the Airco ot drop loads in various ways. *' ’ “Salvo,” he says, “mens drop the total load; a split drop means part of the load, and a trail drop to trigger tank doors to open in rapid sequence.” The last method is used to “lay a swath over big areas or flank the sides of a fire.” S-2S CRUISE BETWEEN 180 and 190 miles an hour and cut speed back to 140 miles to make a drop. “The pilots are well trained and know the dangers,” Benton says. “The final decision to make the drop is up to the pilot.” Admitting it’s a dangerous job, Benton adds, “We hire professional pilots including many commercial and wartime fliers.” “All, he says, “are experts with a minimum 1,000 hours flying time. Many professional men, lawyers, and business men take leaves of absence in the summer to fly.” At the Sonoma Air Attack Base, Airco Blaine Moore, who directed the aerial operations three years ago above the 25-acre brush fire atop Angel Island that burned out of control for five hours’and the same year above the disastrous Oct. 7 blaze that destroyed 30 acres in Kent Woodlands and threatened Ross, says that fighting fires over Marin is particularly dangerous. ONE DANGER IS “all the small private aircraft flying around,” he says; the other, turbulence. Moore, a confident, smiling ranger who averages 200 hours flying time a year and holds a commercial helicopter pilot’s license, says he never flies his own plane as Airco but rides in the passenger seat of a blue and white twin engine Cessna Skymaster 337 he describes “as a good plane, fast, with excellent visibility.” During an air attack mission, he says, he usually has his pilot (Sis Q’s Oren Knight) fly 2,000 feet above the ground. The tankers are ordered in at 1,000 feet, and if helicopters are called, at 500 feet. REQUIRED TO KEEP in radio con tact with “the fire boss” below and at the same time to monitor a total of “eight nets” mi two radios, he says, “I have to divide my head in two in order Air to listen.” At the same time he's achieving this, he says, he is keeping track of tne Air tankers below, watching out for hazards that might endanger them, and recording (on a clipboard) times of their arrival and departure to and from reloading. He also must plot the winds and the terrain, draw a map fo the area and of the fire, order the pilots to make drops, track effectiveness of the drop and draw still another map, a topographical map of the fire with a grid measure to scale. AS HIS PLANE circles and recircles the fire area he is also taking 35 millimeter slides and Polaroid photos that along with the topographical map he often “throws” In orange drop tubes from the cockpit “to the fire boss below.” * v Sometimes the photos are later used to investigate fire causes and he says he always uses them in “critiquing my men.” Recalling the Kent Woodlands fire in 1972 he says that when he arrived he found the ceiling had dropped to 300 feet with clouds covering the fire. Visibility was poor. The air was “extremely turbulent and the fire “was burning in 10 directions at on<$.” WATCHING OUT FOR power lines and other hazards that might threaten the low-flying tankers, he ordered his men to make drops on the “head” or core of the fire. This eventually cooled the fire sufficiently to enable the hand crews to follow up with lines and tools. (This fire that threatened many large homes in the area and caused $60,000 damage to the "home of the president of Firemen's FUnd American Insurance Companies was finally brought under control late in the afternoon by six air tankers from Santa Rosa, Hollister and Ukiah, and 175 firemen, volunteers and Boy Scouts on the ground.) Moore, who started with the forestry division as a firefighter 16 years ago (after studying geology .in college —‘-’A lot of good that did me!”), like so many of his fellow officers, vhas worked up through the ranks and is now a fire captain with a Ranger 1 rating. MOORE SPENDS winters and springs instructing tanker pilots. (Pilots attend ground school where Moore teaches firefighting techniques. Tankers' bellies are loaded with water and the pilots are taken on test flights and trained to hit targets. Moore says he never stops training his men — that training goes on all summer long.) He also has given air attack training to members of the Marin County Fire Department and works in schools “educating kids how to avoid starting fires. A high rate are started by kids!” Stationed year-round at the Sonoma Air Attack Base with Moore is Fire Captain Ron Thomas, who started with the division as a firefighter 19 years ago in Occidental and who now manages the air base, flies as relief Airco and supervises all ground operations. He’s in charge of the ground crews and of mixing the powder retardants with water to load the planes, and says, “It’s my responsibility to get the planes in and out.” According to Jay Barrett, 44, former Air Force pilot who flew in Korea and was checked out in both Saber Jets and propellor driven aircraft (“In my day it wasn’t an all-jet air force”J, there are fewer than 200 tanker pilots left in the country. POINTING TO HIS fellow pilots clustered around a workbench in the base garage where his co-pilot (it takes two to fly the “boat”) was hard at work repairing a car motor, he adds, “We re becoming an elite corps.” Barrett, who says he’s flown over 7.500 hours and who flies his own plane home to Placerville nightly, says fighting fires from the air “gets under your skin. There’s something about it. A sense of accomplishment results readily when you see the effects (of retardants) on a going fire.” It's hard work, he adds. “The PBY is a hard plane to fly physically. There’s no power steering.” PILOT DANIEL (Dan) McClure. 29, of San Diego, a former Navy S-2 pilot who is flying his first year as a firefighter and admits “having flying in my blood,” says that flying close to the ground demands even more precision and pilot skill than landing on an aircraft carrier’s deck. Firefighting may be dangerous, but the state’s flying fighters meet the challenge. CREWMAN GUNTER LESINSKI supervises the reloading of the giant orange and white converted Navy Super SPY at the Sonoma Air Attack Base of the California Division of Forestry. Three S- 2s that still bear their. Navy markings are parked on the runway in the foreground. The planes are being salvaged for spare parts by the Sis Q Flying Service that leases tankers and pilots to the state. It takes the eight and half months the planes are not fighting fires to repair and restore FIVE MINUTES LATER, after gunning and warming his motors Don McClure is rolling his S-2 tanker, Number 95, down the runway for takeoff. Pilots and aircraft are leased by the state from private companies during the fire season. Pilots and planes at Sonoma are supplied by Sis Q Flying Service whose hangars and offices are adjacent to the Air Attack Base.

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