NAPA, Calif. - The pace of wildfires is picking up all over 12 western states; first among them, California. Cal Fire invited the media to Napa's airport where each type of aircraft was shown to reporters. But one heavy helicopter had to depart before the press conference to attack a raging fire near Paradise.
Cal Fire's firefighting air force is already the world's largest. But, it's growing due to high demand.
Five of 10 Firehawk twin engine, state-of-the-art helicopters began service last month. Unlike the older Huey choppers, recycled and converted Vietnam-era models, these are the best in the world, capable of even night operations.
These brand new Firehawks are not recycled military aircraft. They were purchased brand new, They fly further, they fly faster and they are far, far safer than the old Huey's, which are still in service. Most importantly, it holds three times the amount of water as the old helicopters.
So far in 2021, Cal Fire has responded to 500 more fires than last year's record year, but due to quick response and tamer weather, fewer acres were burned. "But the next couple of months is where we're really gonna get into our really active burn season." said Division Chief Tom Knetch of Cal Fire's Sonoma Lake Napa Unit.
But now, fires have drastically changed. Consider a century of acreage consumed in the Cal Fire Unit that covers Napa, Sonoma, Solano Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties.
"Our earliest recorded fire in this unit was in 1916. And, from 1916 to 2014, this unit only ever saw was 1.3 acres burn," said Chief Knetch. So it took 98 years, almost a century, to rack up 1.3 million acres. But 2015 to today, the six counties in Sonoma, Lake, Napa unit have already racked up another 1.4 million acres.
"There's no way you can attribute to burning a century's worth of fires in just six fire seasons to just accident or bad luck," said the chief.
So, more aircraft, truck and firefighters are essential, especially since the giant 747 Super Tanker is now out of service. "We still have quite of few other air craft available, the DC-10 is averrable for us, but one less tanker is definitely a handicap," said Sonoma Air Attack Base Captain Nick Welch.
So, when you think about the Bay Area, especially the Sonoma Lake Unit, a century's worth of burning in just six years; that's a different kind of fire season.