Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pilots, crews take to skies for fire fight • Retardant powerful tool against blaze

SACRAMENTO – The Doors play over a radio somewhere in the pit crew’s sun tent as meandering orange stains streak across the hot tarmac.

Below the bright orange belly of the DC-10 air tanker at McClellan Air Force Base, crews work to wash off the residue from the latest run of retardant drops over the King Fire.

Heavy hoses on rollers sit nearby, waiting to fill the planes with a proprietary mixture of fire retardant – 90 percent water, 10 percent ammonia phosphate and other ingredients.

The chemical mixture is specially designed to slow fires enough for grounds crews to attack when it is dropped on, or ahead of flames.

Today is a slower day for the pilots and their respective planes, but everyone seems spring-loaded, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

For Gerrel “Doc” Storrude and Tom Dux, a flight mechanic and co-pilot with Montana-based Neptune Aviation, a dispatch call would have them in the air and fire-bound in less than 15 minutes.

The two sit in lawn chairs – jump bags packed, flight suits hanging near the open door of their converted British passenger plane.

Dux casually explains that the plane takes less than eight minutes to fill the 3,000-gallon tank dominating the area where some 80 passenger seats used to be.

Neither Dux or Storrude learned to fly with the military; they are both civilian contractors.

In a nearby stall, another drop plane sits awaiting action. It’s a C-130 flown by retired U.S. military airman, Jerry Champlin.

“I’m not sure what’s wrong with us,” he joked with another retiree who couldn’t stay retired.

The utilitarian aircraft looks low-tech, but behind its aluminum skin sits a finely-tuned drop system capable of surgical retardant drops.

Champlin said a full tank can weigh more than 34,000 pounds and can be dropped precisely where it is needed through the use of hydraulic doors below the plane.

The air base is the perfect backdrop for the specialized, paramilitary operation.

Rob Wheatley, air tanker base manager for Cal Fire, said smoke is the biggest issue flight crews face with large scale fires, like the King.

“Smoke has been an issue,” Wheatley said. “When you’re flying at 250 feet, it’s like driving in fog.”

Jason Ortiz, with Cal Fire, coordinates the ground operations for up to nine planes at a time – organizing them into stalls by size and getting them the fuel and retardant they need to make another run.

“It’s like playing chess,” Ortiz said.

The whole operation takes coordination and constant communication, not just on the base, but with ground crews on the fire as well.

Planes fly as low as 250 feet elevation over fire lines and can drop as much as several thousand gallons at a time.

Champlin said the force can easily turn over cars and cause injuries on the ground.

Ortiz jokes, “I have been painted before.”

To date, the planes flying out of McClellan have dropped more than 650,000 gallons on the King Fire.

As of press time Wednesday, the King Fire has grown to 92,960 acres and was 38 percent contained.

Strong winds and a red flag warning in the Sierras could mean trouble for firefighters as they fight to gain the upper hand on the blaze.

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