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Posted by: Kim_Hamilton on 01/21/2009 08:54 AM Updated by: Kim_Hamilton on 01/22/2009 04:33 PM
Expires: 01/01/2014 12:00 AM
:

Columbia Air Attack Base is First to Respond~by Victor Claveau

Columbia, CA....Helicopter Pilot Tom Eggleston welcomed me to the Columbia Air Attack Base, located next to the Columbia Airport, and agreed to show me around. Tom explained, “The men and women of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) are dedicated to the fire protection and stewardship of over 31 million acres of California's privately-owned wild lands. In addition, the Department provides varied emergency services in 36 of the State's 58 counties via contracts with local governments.....



Click on Photo for Slide Show!


“The Department's firefighters, fire engines, and aircraft respond to an average of more than 5,600 wild land fires each year. Those fires burn more than 172,000 acres annually.”

“Basically, the purpose of the Columbia Air Attack Base is to try to contain fires until larger response teams can be transported to a fire area. We are the first response and 90% of our fires are usually held to ten acres or less.”

Army trained, Tom has been flying helicopters for 20 years, and is part of a three-person crew that staffs the base year-round. The other 2 crew members maintain and operate the fire truck.

Tom continued with his explanation, “During fire season, we are always ready to go on a moments’ notice. When we receive word that a fire has broken out, I transport 6 to 7 firefighters (a hot-shot team) and a Fire Captain to the scene as fast, and as safely as possible. The helicopter is always ready to go – fully equipped. Each firefighter carries a 5 gallon, 40+ pound back pump of water to spray on a fire. In addition, they also carry hand tools, 5 to 6 quarts of drinking water, food, and a fire shelter; in all, that’s 50 plus pounds of gear.

These men and women have to be in great physical shape to do a very dangerous and demanding job.”

The declaration of fire season in California is actually a change in preparedness levels for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. CAL FIRE is year-round fire and emergency response Department. When weather patterns in an area of the state become warm and dry, and vegetation (fuels) are at a low moisture content point, Emergency response dispatch levels are typically increased, facilities are staffed 24 hours a day and additional firefighters are hired. CAL FIRE air tankers and air attack planes are deployed from their maintenance location in Sacramento to strategic positions around the state. Restrictions and suspensions of burn permits are also likely to take effect during fire season in areas where extreme fire conditions exist.

When cooling weather, rain and snow are sufficient to reduce the fire threat, CAL FIRE then reduces its preparedness levels by releasing additional firefighters, closing some stations, and repositioning aircraft.

Preparedness levels can change depending upon weather patterns any time throughout the year. Typically they begin to increase earliest and remain in effect the longest in the south state as the warm, dry weather patterns can last from May to January in that region.

The helicopter, a UH-1H Iroquois (Huey); manufactured in 1970 and used extensively during the Viet Nam War. The UH-1H aircraft were significantly modified to meet CDF’s specialized needs. The modified helicopters were designated as "Super Hueys". The Super Huey sported a larger, more powerful engine, transmission and rotor system. The tail boom and tail rotor were also modified to accommodate the engine, giving the aircraft greater performance than the standard U.S. Army UH-1H helicopters in hotter and higher conditions typical of California. It also is specially fitted with lower landing rails, which allows the copter to land on rocky terrain. It also carries a water-dropping bucket that carries 324 gallons of water; and a system that enables the pilot to mix fire retardant foam directly into the bucket. Usually only a quart of foam is used per bucket of water. Tom explained that some fires are so hot that the water evaporates before hitting the ground, but the fire retardant still does its job.

A team consists of 6-7 firefighters, 2 fire Captains, the pilot, and a fuel truck driver. The Huey has a flight time of approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes, which necessitates that the fuel truck get as close as possible to the fire area.
Any available water source, from a reservoir, to a river or stream, can be used to fill the bucket, as long as it is deeper than the bucket, as the copter must hover over the source. Dragging a bucket across the water source would be dangerous and could cause the copter to pitch forward.

During fire season the base comes truly alive. Fire crews of seasonal firefighters along with their fire captains are on call 24 hours a day. In addition to paid-call firefighters, low-risk inmates from the Sierra Center Prison are trained at the Baseline Conservation Camp.

Every Firefighter must attend a 67-hour, CDF basic training course which includes 41 Hours of Classroom, 3 Hours Written Examinations, 15 Hours Drill, and 8 Hours of Performance Examinations. The course is oriented toward the equipment utilized on CDF engines. Fundamentals of wild land fire control and techniques of controlling other emergency incidents are covered with a strong safety perspective. The course is structured with a maximum emphasis on demonstration, student application and performance examinations. Students must be a newly hired CDF firefighter at least 18 years of age. Those interested should check out http://www.fire.ca.gov/about/about_careers_fireprotection_seasonal.php.

The State has a mutual agreement with the State of Nevada to share resources in the event of a major emergency. In addition, in a national emergency they can be assigned to the Office of Emergency Services. For example, some California crews were dispatch to Louisiana in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

In support of its ground forces, the CAL FIRE emergency response air program includes 23 Grumman S-2T 1,200 gallon air tankers (one is kept as maintenance relief), 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters (two are kept as maintenance relief, and 14 OV-10A air tactical aircraft (one is kept as maintenance relief). From 13 air attack and nine helitack bases located statewide, aircraft can reach most fires within 20 minutes.

The air tactical planes fly overhead directing the air tankers and helicopters to critical areas of the fire for retardant and water drops. The retardant used to slow or retard the spread of a fire is a slurry mix consisting of a chemical salt compound, water, clay or a gum-thickening agent, and a coloring agent.
While both air tankers and helicopters are equipped to carry fire retardant or water, the helicopters can also transport firefighters, equipment and injured personnel. All CAL FIRE Aircraft are strategically located throughout the state at airbases and helicopter bases. During high fire activity, CAL FIRE may move aircraft to better provide statewide air support.

The average annual budget of the CAL FIRE Aviation Management Program is nearly $20 million. A total of 18 CAL FIRE personnel oversee the program with an additional 130 contract employees providing mechanical, pilot and management services to the program.

During fire season there are two air tankers based in Columbia. At times, there may be as many as 10 to 15 planes using the facility; three at a time. “Ecologically friendly” fire retardants are mixed here and giant tanks hold reserves, other tanks hold water enough to last at least for one day’s activity.
Using a two-way radio, the tower coordinator controls the beehive of activity as the aircraft land, replenish, and return to the air. He lets the ground crew know what kind of aircraft is coming in order for them to service it in the most efficient manner, and get it back into the fight as soon as possible.

It should be comforting to know that the professionals of CAL FIRE are on the job, 24 hours a day. When needed, they are ready. There is no way to measure their value to the people of California, and we owe each and every one of them a debt of gratitude.




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