Calif. firefighters use heavy air power

By Jeremiah Marquez
The Associated Press

YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. — Firefighters are bringing heavier airpower to bear in their battle against wildfires in the West this season, including for the first time a DC-10 jetliner capable of dropping 10 times more retardant than the usual air tanker.

A cluster of wildfires in the desert east of Los Angeles has become a laboratory of sorts for the new equipment.

"It's a quantum leap," Dennis Hulbert, a U.S. Forest Service regional aviation director, said of recent improvements in firefighting air operations. "We're really trying to take advantage of the current technology."

The DC-10, pressed into service by the state Forestry Department, made two sorties Sunday, swooping in just above the trees, opening its belly and disgorging onto the flaming terrain 12,000 gallons of pink fire retardant each time.

It was the first time in the United States that a jetliner outfitted to carry retardant was used on a real wildfire, said Capt. Jesse Estrada of the California Forestry Department.

In addition, the first person to spot one of the fires was piloting a military-style helicopter with infrared sensors that peer through plumes of smoke and pinpoint hotspots.

And there is more airpower in the wings.

For the first time, the U.S. Forest Service plans to send up an unmanned drone to watch for fires across the West, with test flights scheduled for next month. And jumbo jets with payloads twice as large as the DC-10's have been tested but have not been used against real wildfires yet.

The Southern California blazes have scorched more than 130 square miles of forest and desert over the past week and a half. Flames have destroyed nearly 60 homes and threatened mountain hamlets 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

In all, authorities have fielded nearly 40 helicopters and 25 planes, including the special, privately owned DC-10, which slowed the flames' advance. A Forestry Department air tanker with a 1,200-gallon capacity would have to make 10 drops to equal the payload of just one DC-10.

"We've assembled quite an air force to support you out there," Brian Fennessey, an air operations director for one of the blazes, assured hundreds of ground firefighters at a Monday briefing.

With a rental cost of $52,000 a day, the DC-10 is not cheap. But firefighters were impressed by its performance and will not hesitate to use it again, Estrada said.

"We're trying to save people's homes and protect firefighters," he said. "When you think about that, it's actually not that much."

At least two Cobra helicopters owned by the Forest Service have also been pressed into service. The two-seat helicopter has been used for several fire seasons and is proving invaluable again, firefighters said.

Outfitted with video and infrared cameras, it often flies above the air traffic and beams real-time images of forest terrain and hot spots to fire commanders below.

The Cobra has been involved from the beginning. After reports of smoke began pouring in the night of July 9, pilot Steven Jensen scrambled his Cobra over a forest ridge and spotted a dead, 80-foot tree smoldering after a lightning strike.

Jensen, a 60-year-old pilot who works for a Forest Service contractor, said that in his 30 years working fires, this was one of the most concentrated air attacks he has ever seen.

"This," he said, "is a pretty good air circus."


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