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Saturday, Sep 04 2010 12:00 PM

Pilots in Kern keep safe flying to flames of wildland infernos

BY STEVE E. SWENSON, Californian staff writer sswenson@bakersfield.com

The air above a wildfire is fraught with danger. There's heat, smoke and a fleet of helicopters and air tankers all trying to slow a fire without running into each other.

Those who take to the air have tough jobs -- from the physical demands they feel to the emotional heartbreak they see -- and their skills are critical, including in three recent Kern County fires.

Related Info

Aircraft assigned to Kern wildfires

Bull Fire, July 26: 14 helicopters, 8 air tankers

West Fire, July 27: 7 helicopters, 6 air tankers

Post Fire, Aug. 24: 8 helicopters, 5 air tankers, 1 DC-10

Source: Kern County, CalFire and U.S. Forest Service

Pat Williams, chief helicopter pilot for the Kern County Fire Department, has battled fires for 13 years and was the first to get to the July 27 West Fire at the rugged, mountain terrain of the Old West Ranch southeast of Tehachapi. It was the first fire where he knew the owners of homes threatened with destruction.

One hilltop home was owned by his son's baseball coach, Joe Giuffre, he said. At first, he didn't think the home could be saved. "We knew we couldn't get in front of it," he said.

"All we could do was just slow it down," he said. Even Giuffre's wife, Jeannine, said that when they and their son quickly evacuated their home "we didn't think it was going to be saved."

But that story had a happy ending. Water from helicopters, retardant from air tankers and the defensible space the Giuffres created around their home -- Jeannine is president of a fire safe council and practiced what she preached -- the home was saved.

One the other side of the ranch near the wind farm, a home of another of Williams' friends, Brent Scheibel, was saved with the help of a water tank Scheibel supported that allowed helicopters to suck up water right on the ranch.

The Scheibel tank and others near wildfire areas "are a godsend for us," Williams said. "That increases the amount of water we can quickly get to so that one helicopter can act like two or three."

Steering clear of each other

Saving homes on the ground is one thing. Saving lives in the air is another.

"When you have eight, nine or 10 aircraft all zoning in on one spot, it can be dangerous," said Kent Haskins, air tactical supervisor for Kern County. "I fly 1,000 feet above everyone else. I'm an airborne air traffic controller. I keep an eye on them and keep them all separate."

For that, he says he gets a crick in his neck always looking out the same window as his pilot, Donna Webster, circles around the fire. "It's critical to keep me in a position to see what's going on," he said.

That's just part of the protocol that begins the moment a wildfire has taken off and needs an air attack.

The first aircraft to a fire, as Williams was at the West Fire, surveys the situation. The rest have to ask permission to enter a 12-mile ring known as the Fire Traffic Area, a lesson that was learned after a tragedy nine years ago in Northern California where two air tankers crashed in the air, Williams said.

In August 2001, the air tankers whose pilots worked for San Joaquin Helicopters of Delano went to dump retardant on a 250-acre brush and tree fire eight miles south of Ukiah where four structures burned and another dozen were threatened. A news story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat quoted state forestry spokeswoman Karen Terrill saying, "I have talked to many of the (firefighting) pilots over the years and they say they believe this is more dangerous than combat flying."

Anyone who watched the recent Bull Fire near Kernville, the Post Fire near Lebec and the West Fire saw a small parade of aircraft fly into smokey areas to drop water or retardant.

Looking out, talking to each other

Getting in and out safely takes observation and communication, Williams and Haskins said. In Haskins' plane, he and his pilot monitor five radios and eight channels all chattering very brief but descriptive messages, he said.

Those messages, Williams said, "help me build a mental picture of where each helicopter is. You have to be looking in front of you, but the messages are a big picture in your mind."

Haskins, however, has the job at the top of controlling all the aircraft. "They don't know where everyone is, but I do." He separates the aircraft by altitude and directions to keep them apart, he said.

Williams agrees with the importance of the coordination. "You need everyone to be on the same sheet of music," he said.

So any time a helicopter needs to visit a dip area such as the Kern River, a tank or a lake, the pilot tells the others precisely what they are doing, he said.

Haskins says sometimes he has lead airplanes whose job is to set up the line and place for a drop by the helicopter or air tanker behind it. If there is no lead plane, Haskins says he directs traffic.

"I orally describe the location," Haskins said. "See the huge rock over there or the big clear ridge there to the east, things like that."

Haskins said he also directs aircraft where to make their drops, sometimes with help from commanders on the ground trying to save a house or keep a fire from spreading.

Putting the fires out

As important as an air attack is, its crews know it is the people on the ground with hand tools and bulldozers that put out a fire. "We can help slow the fire down," Haskins said. "But we can't put it out."

Sometimes, including at the Post Fire, the conditions are right to bring in the granddaddy of all firefighter aircraft, the DC-10 or 747 air tankers known as VLAT (very large air tankers), Haskins said.

"You need a real long straight ridge line such as we had west of Interstate 5," he said. "The DC-10 dropped 12,000 gallons of retardant, which is four times more than the typical 3,000-gallon tanker."

That's not to downplay the importance of most helicopters that drop 350 to 400 gallons of water. "A helicopter can get right in with pinpoint accuracy," Haskins said.

How aircraft show up

Which aircraft show up is controlled by what firefighters call South Ops (Southern California Geographic Area Coordination Center in Riverside), Williams said. Kern County has two helicopters, one based in Mettler for fires west of Interstate 5 such as the Post Fire and one based in Keene for fires east of Interstate 5 such as the Bull and West fires, Williams said.

Scott Beck is the chief pilot out of Mettler. Bill Koller is a relief pilot for both areas.

Other aircraft come from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Cal Fire and private firms such as San Joaquin Helicopters that contract to fight fires, he said.

The West Fire broke out while the Bull Fire was roaring in its early stages. But there was no loss of equipment, Haskins said, because the Porterville-based helicopter responded first to the Bull Fire, leaving Williams in Kern County to immediately to go to the West Fire. South Ops took care of the rest of the response.

Pilots see where fire is going

Williams said experienced pilots can tell from the air how a fire will react based on wind conditions, the intensity of the blaze and what they see. The Bull Fire started on the west side of the Kern River, but before it happened, Kern County Fire Capt. Kevin Loomis predicted in his helicopter that the fire would jump the river at Riverkern, Williams said.

Ground crews were in Riverkern but the fire knocked out the electricity to pump water up the hill so that fire hydrants in Riverkern could be used to battle the fire, officials said at the time.

That led to a loss of a lodge building and five houses in Riverkern, officials said.

Williams noted that both the Bull and West fires were unusual in that winds caused the fire to go downhill rather than uphill.

Concentration and discomfort

Those fires continued for days, and the pilots spent a lot of time in the air. Pilots can spend a maximum of seven hours in the air, but that may take place over a span of 13 hours, including grounding to gas up and take breaks, Williams said.

Surprisingly, Williams said, "It's not hard to concentrate. It's like driving on a freeway."

The trickier part is as the helicopter goes in low for a drop, it gets hot in the cabin, he said. "They are not air conditioned," he said. "You can feel intense heat through my window."

Haskins said his plane has air conditioning, but he has the stress of trying to watch and listen to all radio traffic. His pilot, Donna Webster, helps monitor the radios.

Kern's stellar safety record

Deputy Kern County Fire Chief Heidi Dinkler, who heads up wildland fire air operations, said Kern benefits from experienced pilots who know the area.

"It adds up to fast and efficient response," she said.

Kern is one of only six counties in California with its own air attack system. The others are Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Orange and Marin. The goal is to keep 90 percent of fires at 10 acres or less, she said. "We're the only county even close to that. We're at 85 percent."

But what Dinkler is most proud of is "we've never hurt anybody. We've had a stellar safety record. We take great pride in the maintenance and safety of our aircraft."

On the last point, she noted that all the pilots and crews "depend on it."

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