The spate of wildfires in California has been keeping the aerial firefighting teams busy this summer. Rob Edgcumbe tracked down some of the helicopters being used to tackle the fires as they were at work.
Summer in California is usually a time for lots of hot and dry weather. 2015 has been no exception and with a multi-year drought in effect, things are drier than normal. All of this makes for some volatile conditions as far as the risk of wildfires is concerned. The chances of something (man-made or natural) igniting the dry debris are high and wildfires are a feature of the state at this time of year.
A large fire was sparked in the hills north of San Francisco Bay and west of Sacramento. Initially, the cause was thought to have been a car fire but this was later cast in doubt. Irrespective of the cause, the result was a fire that ended up affecting thousands of acres. Located close to Lake Berryessa, the fire was dubbed the Wragg Fire, after a local canyon.
Initially the fire resulted in the closure of some roads through the area and the evacuation of some areas. As the fire crews worked diligently to contain the blaze, the restrictions were progressively lifted. However, the fire continued to rage for many days with new hot spots appearing periodically.
The Calfire crews were supplemented by fire crews from across the state and the hilly terrain made the use of aerial assets essential. One part of the operation was the use of helicopters. A variety of types were brought in to tackle the fires. The helicopters were using Bambi Buckets to drop water in locations picked out for them. While the Bambi Buckets don’t hold a huge amount of water, the accuracy with which they can be targeted makes them an effective tool. Moreover, their ability to rapidly cycle to local rivers and lakes to refill means they can put a lot of water onto the fire in a short space of time.
During the operations GAR observed, the helicopters in use included Hueys, Black Hawks and Chinooks. All were civilian operated while Army Chinooks were seen further overhead, presumably in a coordination role. Bambi Buckets come in a variety of capacities so the Chinooks were able to lift a lot of water on each rotation. These Chinooks came from CHI Aviation and have only recently been acquired from the U.S. Army as part of a program to sell old assets to partly funded new CH-47F production.
The level of activity varied throughout the day as a result of demand and also the need to cycle out for refueling and crew changes. At certain points, the local river would have one helicopter filling its bucket, another inbound and a third on its way back to the fire. This must have resulted in a steady delivery of water to the teams on the ground.
Wildfires are an ongoing feature of life in the drier states of the U.S. They are fought with a variety of fixed and rotary wing assets. The efforts of these teams are vital in protecting the communities affected and their efforts are a credit to all involved.