Saturday, May 21, 2016

Hollister Air Attack Base ready to battle fires in 11 counties

The Hollister Air Attack Base is back in action, ready to respond and be in the air within five minutes or less anywhere within 11 counties after receiving a 911 call. Established in 1962, at the Hollister Airport, it typically responds to about 150 calls a year. The base provides initial attack coverage for an area north to Mt. Diablo, south to Kings Canyon, east to Interstate 5, and west to the ocean. This area includes the Los Padres National Forest.

Joshua Nettles, battalion chief and air attack officer, said CalFire is contracted to have aircraft in Hollister between May 1 and Oct. 1. The planes and personnel can come earlier and stay later, depending on weather conditions.

“Last year we ended fire season right before Thanksgiving,” Nettles said. “At that time, the planes left for the winter and went to McClellan Airfield (formerly McClellan Air Force Base in North Highlands, Calif.), which is where our maintenance hub is and they get all the winter maintenance done. The planes returned on May 9, and we completely opened the base again.”

Nettles said the crew consists of three pilots, an air attack officer, a base manager, three firefighters, an aircraft mechanic, and one heavy equipment operator to drive a bulldozer that is also kept at the airport. He said the base manager acts as the liaison between emergency command centers and the air attack base to relay information. At the base the firefighters are the ground contingent who also assist in parking the aircraft and loading retardant.

The command is manned 24/7. When not on duty, if someone lives within 45 minutes of the airport, they can go home at night. With the exception of the pilots and the mechanic, who are private contractors, everyone else, including helicopter pilots, works for CAL FIRE. Nettles commutes from Clovis; one tanker pilot lives in Dixon, another lives in San Juan Bautista, and another pilot moved to Ridgemark for the season.

There are three planes at the airport: two S2T air tankers and an OV-10 Bronco. All are military excess aircraft that have been reconditioned and are classified as restricted category aircraft, meaning they have been designated as firefighting-only aircraft and don’t carry passengers.

“The Bronco is the command-and-control aircraft, which is the plane that I ride in,” Nettles said. “It seats two people, the pilot and the air attack officer. I control all the aerial resources over a fire, so I’m kind of like an air traffic controller in the sky. I coordinate with the ground forces to determine where the retardant drops and helicopter drops need to go, so we all work in unison.”

Each air tanker can carry up to 1,200 gallons of retardant.

“The retardant is phosphate-based,” he said. “It’s basically fertilizer, and the phosphate salt in it actually retards the fire. When the retardant falls out of an aircraft we’re looking for the aircraft to be at around 150 feet over the ground. The idea is that the retardant rains straight down and completely coats the grass and brush and timber, so when the fire reaches it the phosphate salt in the retardant prevents the fuel from burning.”

Nettles said the retardant is made out of food-grade materials and is biodegradable. The color, he said, is called “fugitive,” and degrades from ultraviolet light within 14 to 21 days. He said the bright orange color is used in order for the aircrews to be able to see where retardant has already been dropped.

The air attack base receives fire calls in a number of ways.

“Up in Santa Clara County there is a lookout tower that is staffed by volunteers, but typically most fire calls come in through 911 to our emergency command center in Monterey,” Nettles said. “It can come from a person on the road who sees smoke, and sometimes its general aviation aircraft flying over a remote area and they may see a fire and call it in to a local airport tower, which relays it. Or they can call it in themselves.”

When crews respond to a call, it’s all hands on deck because CalFire's mission is to keep 95 percent of all vegetation fires to 10 acres or less.

“We send everybody,” Nettles said. “As far as the aviation resources are concerned, if we get a call for a vegetation fire in our responsibility area, we send both tankers, the OB-10, and at least one copter.”

While he didn’t recall how many fires crews responded to from Hollister in 2015, he did say that 451,475 gallons of retardant were dropped on those fires. With two aircraft carrying 1,200 gallons each, a rough calculation would add up to 188 drops fire calls for each aircraft, which is above the norm of 150 missions.

“We’re within the three to five busiest air bases in the state,” Nettles said.

The 12 air attack bases in California are staggered around the state in order to assure a response to any fire within 20 minutes. All are funded through the state’s general operating budget.

Always looking for an opportunity to toss out a fire prevention message, Nettles encouraged people who fly drones to not to do so over fires.

“If they fly, we can’t,” he said. “If you see a fire don’t send up your drone or your RC aircraft in order to get good pictures. Our aircraft are in the same space, so we’ll leave the area because it’s a safety hazard. We’ll monitor the area and come back when it’s safe.”

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