With the onset of fire season, many Lake Almanor Basin residents have been concerned with the lack of activity out of the Chester Air Attack Base.
Many residents have asked countless times, “Why aren’t they flying?” During several community meetings, Chips Fire officials responded, “Lack of visibility has kept us grounded.”
According to Terry Grecian, the attack base manager, there are many factors involved, and the stock answer “limited visibility” is only one of them.
Aircraft used on the Chips Fire, and any subsequent fire, don’t all come from Chester.
“Just because you don’t see them flying out of Chester, does not mean they’re not coming from other bases,” said Grecian.
|A Cal Fire S2T airtanker working the Chips Fire on final approach to Chester Airport|
The Rogers Field runway is not long enough to accommodate air tankers such as the 12,000-gallon capacity DC-10, Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT), the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS), and the Large Air Tanker (LAT).
The ones flying out of Chester are Grumman S2-T air tankers, because of the lack of federally contracted air tankers, which are shared nationally. That doesn’t mean the larger-capacity DC-10 and MAFFS are not being used.
Aside from Chester, the main bases utilized for the Chips Fire have been McClellan Air Force Base, in Sacramento County, and Chico and Redding’s air attack bases.
Coming from such diverse locations, it’s easy to underestimate exactly how many tankers are supplying retardant to the fire.
Grecian mentioned another misconception: People often believe fire retardant alone will put out a fire. Fire retardant is intended to slow down the fire.
Grecian pointed out retardant is used to “support the firefighters on the ground, allowing them time to get on location and put in a line, in attempt to hold the fire.”
Another consideration is the weather — the effectiveness of retardant and water drops decrease as wind velocity increases. Retardant is not effective when wind speeds reach 25 miles per hour or more.
As officials have said in the past, visibility is imperative for safe aerial firefighting. Depending on the type of aircraft, most require at least three miles of visibility to safely operate.
The thick patches of smoke can reduce visibility dramatically and keep flights grounded until the skies clear.
Every tool has a purpose
“There are a lot of different resources (tools) required for fighting wildfires, and for each tool there is a different purpose and a different time to use it,” Grecian said.
Each of the different aircraft used for fighting wildfires is responsible for a specific job.
Two air attack planes working out of Chester have been devoted to the Chips Fire from day one: Air Tactical Group Supervisors (ATGS).
“They function like an air-traffic controller, supervising all air traffic working over the fire in fire suppression efforts.”
“ATGS controls the vertical separation and entry points of the lead planes, air tankers and helicopters into the fire traffic area,” said Grecian.
One of the many on the Chips Fire is the bright red and white Firehawk, often seen with its large water bucket suspended by a long line.
Two aircraft that probably receive the least recognition, but accomplish a great deal, are the infrared and hoist ships.
“The helicopter with infrared capabilities has made it possible for local residents to see the exact location of the fire’s edge as it has progressed for the last month. This tool has been instrumental in providing daily maps,” said Grecian.
Kern County’s Helicopter 407, at the Chester base, was responsible for rescuing two firefighters from the Chips Fire and one from the Reading Fire.
It is capable of being used as a hoist ship and for water drops.
“This helicopter was used during the Vietnam War. It was restored and has been used since 2007 by the Kern County Fire Department,” said Grecian.
All these air resources, and more, have been pressed into use on the Chips Fire. Officials plan to continue using them until fire suppression efforts succeed.
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