Cal Fire's aerial defense more vital this fire season than ever before

Cal Fire already has its hands full and we haven't even reached the peak fire summer months. What helps those thousands of ground crews is the growing armada of aircraft, both state-owned and contractors, who risk life and limb to stop 95% of wildfires before consuming 10 acres or more.

For more than a half century, Cal Fire's firefighting air force has been critical in the fight against wildfires. But never more important than it will be this year. McClellan Field, just north of Sacramento, is Cal Fire's central maintenance base to the largest firefighting air force on Earth. 

It's also a super critical, busy refueling and reloading of fire retardants, especially for larger firefighting aircraft. "We could be up to twenty to twenty-five aircraft flying in and out of here," said Cal Fire Chief Dusty Martin, McClellan Air Tanker Base Chief.

It loads, more fire retardant than any other tanker base in the nation. With this week's red flag warning, the base has been hoping to be sure it can hop on new wildfires before they explode into firestorms.

"We've flown four fires before lunch today and we've got aircraft flying a fire as we speak," said Chief Martin. 

Across the state, Cal Fire operates 13 air tanker bases and 11 Cal Fire helitack chopper bases. They slow down fires so engines and ground crews can put the fire out.

As of Friday, thanks to mostly thanks to cool, wet-spring weather, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service have battled 1,734 fires, fewer than the 2,152 fires by this time last year. But that's still more wildfires than the five-year average of 1,347 fires. 

"This time of year we typically start to see the transition when the live fuels dry out. But, at this point in the year, they're pretty dry and they're ready to burn," said Chief Issac Sanchez, Cal Fire's Public Information Officer. With early release, inmate hand crews are in short supply.

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"And, of course, it's had an impact on the number of firefighters we that we've had available to staff hours our crews," said Sanchez. To make up for that, Cal Fire has hired additional contract hand crews as well as assistance form the Conservation Corps and National Guard. "Without that symbiotic relationship, you have a catastrophe on your hands immediately," said Sanchez.

Cal Fire needs more firefighters than ever and there's a bill in the state Senate right now to grant them 1,100 more firefighters. The question is: will even that be enough?