Cal Fire beefs up air fleet as the state braces for dry conditions

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MCCLELLAN PARK, Calif. (KTXL) — As hot and dry conditions ramp up in Northern California, so do preparations for Cal Fire’s aviation fleet.

In his 11 and half years with Cal Fire and nearly 40 years with the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire’s Senior Chief of Aviation Dennis Brown knows when the conditions are right for another hectic fire season.

“We’re headed into another dry season,” Brown told FOX40. “So, with the month or last two or three that we’ve had, it is reason for concern.”

That means it’s time to ready all battle stations, starting with training for existing air tankers and air tactical pilots.

“They are going through refresher training, ground school, and also flight training today and for the next several weeks,” Brown explained.

Brown said they are also training pilots to fly several of the new, specially-modified S70-i Firehawks, which are double the size of their longstanding UH-1H, or Huey, helicopters and will replace 12 of the Vietnam-era aircraft by 2022.

Several years ago, Brown said the State Legislature approved the replacement of Cal Fire’s 30-year-old Huey helicopters. They received their first Blackhawk in 2020 to begin training pilots. 

Cal Fire ordered 12 S70-i Firehawk helicopters and have received five. The next two are coming in May. Two are being housed at McClellan Airport.

They are manufactured by an American company in Poland and are shipped and retrofitted in Texas and Colorado.

“It’s got an extended landing gear that makes it sit up higher,” Brown said. “It’s got a thousand-gallon tank that’s put under it. Those are seats that are up in the aircraft that fold down.”

The helicopters can carry up to 12 firefighters and can store up to 1,000 gallons of water or fire-retardant, compared to the Hueys’ 320 gallons. They are also equipped with exterior cables for rescues and a snorkel system that can suck up 1,000 gallons of water in less than a minute. 

Brown said they will also have twin-engine and night operation capabilities.

The hope is to have Cal Fire pilots at surrounding airfields begin training with more S70-i Firehawks in June of this year, depending on the fire season. 

The mechanics at McClellan are also making additional adjustments to the rest of their summer fleet. 

“We’ll have 23 Grumman S-2 air tankers. Those are our 1,200-gallon air tankers at our 12 air attack bases,” Brown explained. “We have a 16th OV-10. That aircraft will be going to the paint shop. It will be going to Fresno.”

Cal Fire is also looking into acquiring several more Lockheed C-130 air tankers. They can store up to 4,000 gallons of water and fire retardant, all to help maintain Cal Fire’s goal.

“To have an aircraft on any fire in our state, responsibility area in California within 20 minutes,” Brown told FOX40. 

It’s a goal they, hopefully, will not have to see fulfilled too much this summer.

“Airplanes and helicopters typically don’t put the fires out, we will slow them down,” Brown said. “We can assist the ground folks, but without the ground resources, we won’t be successful.”

Cal Fire’s Lockheed C-130 program is currently on pause. Brown said this is because they are struggling with meeting the requirements of the National Defense Authorization Act by the U.S. Air Force and getting the 4,000-gallon tanks installed on the aircraft.

The fleet of seven C-130s won’t be ready until late 2022 or early 2023. 

Brown said to reduce the risk of a more dangerous fire season this year, people should watch out for dragging chains on trailers and fireworks near dry areas.

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