SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KTVU) - For the first time, CAL Fire in Northern California allowed news media GoPro cameras inside the cockpit and out on the body of a CAL Fire Air Attack plane. KTVU received this unprecedented access over Labor Day weekend in an exclusive feature on the heroes who help stop forest fires from the sky.
The planes from the Santa Rosa CAL Fire air base can be anywhere in a matter of minutes.
“Our air attack bases are strategically located throughout California, so we could have airplanes over any fire in the state responsibility area in 20 minutes or less,” said Battalion Chief Chris Jurasek.
There are 13 air attack bases throughout California. The air attack team, two fire retardant planes and one air attacker carrying the battalion chief, do not directly fight the wildfires.
“Our goal is to stop the spread,” said pilot Jerome Laval.
“Buying time for the guys on the ground to access the fire and put it out.”
On base, they have enough fire retardant, about 50,000 gallons, ready to go when the planes take off. The retardant is a mixture of fertilizers, water, salt, and gum. CAL Fire firefighters are assigned to the Santa Rosa base and responsible for filling the planes with the pink retardant.
Inside the tower, base manager Paul Lovier is also on the move, rolling back and forth between radios and computers. He enters in the dispatches into a computer program that tracks all of the aircraft in the air in real time.
“It goes from zero to 110 sometimes,” said Lovier of the calls for service.
Pilots take off from the Sonoma County Air Attack base an average of three times a day. They say they attack fires many people never know about.
“We respond to so many fires that the news media, whether it be television, radio, newspapers, never ever hear about,” said pilot Bob Valette.
“Last year, this base responded to over 500 fires.”
One fire stands out as the worst – last year’s Valley Fire. Laval was the first pilot to make a retardant drop on the Lake County wildfire and Valette was the second pilot to drop on it.
“It was extreme fire behavior and in 20 years, I’d never seen that,” said Laval.
“I’ve never seen a fire move with such veracity as last year,” said Valette.“When you see the fire is moving so fast and rapidly and you feel like a small bucket of water in the ocean.”
In the air, the pilots and battalion chief look at the fire as a man – with heels, flanks, shoulders, and a head. They plan their retardant air drops to “box” in the man.
“Nobody needs to tell you ‘good job, bad job.’ You know what you did,” said Valette.