July 12, 2008

Waging Ground, Air War on Fires is Herculean Effort

By John Scheibe, Ventura County Star, Calif.

Jul. 12--Fighting and winning the battle against a wildfire is much like fighting a war: It takes lots of boots on the ground and tactical assaults from the air.

Maj. Bryan Allen is a commander in the air war against the numerous wildfires plaguing California, including the 9,443-acre Gap fire burning in the mountains above Santa Barbara and Goleta.

Swooping down to drop thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant on a wildfire "is one of the most dangerous things a pilot is called upon to do," Allen, a Newbury Park native, said as he sat Friday in a room at the California Air National Guard's Channel Islands station near Point Mugu.

For nearly two weeks now, an average of eight large, lumbering C-130 Hercules have been stationed at the base, taking off to drop gooey, orange Phoschek retardant from huge nozzles onto the Gap blaze and other wildfires. The planes often fly lower than 200 feet through smoke-filled air over hilly terrain.

The Phoschek is mixed into a gummy broth near the runway at the Channel Islands base in an operation resembling a huge kitchen. A black-rubber bladder big enough to hold 10,000 gallons sits at the side of the runway. Next to it are pallets with 2,000-pound bags of Phoschek, which consists of salt, gum and other substances. The retardant also is a potent fertilizer, helping fire-damaged plants to regenerate.

Ground crews mix the water with Phoschek, then load the concoction into a steel tank, where it is stored until ready to be loaded onto a C-130 Hercules.

The mixing can be tricky, said Mark Shamblin, a city of Ventura fire captain helping out at the base. Mix in too little water and the Phoschek will not seep down into brush or trees. Mix in too much and the material can lose its potency.

Shamblin, Allen and others attended a morning briefing at the base Friday for an update on the hundreds of wildfires burning across California.

"The focus right now is with what's going on up north," Frank Domingues, an official with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, told the more than a dozen personnel at the briefing.

The most urgent priority Friday was a wildfire in Butte County near Paradise, Domingues said. That meant authorities likely would station the C-130s and other aircraft in Northern California, including at McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento.

McClellan, along with the Channel Islands base, are the two major operation centers providing air support for the wildfires in California, Allen said.

Authorities must often decide on short notice where the C-130s and other aircraft are most needed, given the unpredictability of the fires, he said.

Heavy smoke and thick fog made it hard to fight the Butte County fire from the air on Friday, Domingues said. Fire officials also declared the Basin Complex Fire around Big Sur a top priority Friday. The Monterey County fire has grown to more than 90,000 acres.

Closer to home, authorities continued to worry about the Piute fire in Kern County, which had burned 34,852 acres as of Friday and was only 32 percent contained. It had also destroyed six homes.

Firefighters have had better luck battling the 11-day-old Gap fire in Santa Barbara County, which was 75 percent contained. While numerous outbuildings and vehicles have been lost, no homes have been destroyed.

As in war, the battle against a wildfire is ultimately won on the ground, Allen said. Firefighters must not only build fire lines, they also must carefully inspect the ground, making sure all embers are extinguished.

But having support from the air "really helps," Allen said.

"I have no doubt that all of these wildfires would have been much worse were it not for all the fire retardant dropped in and around them," Allen said.


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Copyright (c) 2008, Ventura County Star, Calif.

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