Jumbo jet among advances firefighters using against blazes | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Jumbo jet among advances firefighters using against blazes

Jeremiah Marquez

YUCCA VALLEY (AP) – The DC-10 swoops in just above the trees, its belly opens and disgorges onto flaming terrain 12,000 gallons of pink retardant – up to 10 times more than what a traditional firefighting plane can release.

With airborne firefighting getting more sophisticated, a cluster of wildfires in the desert east of Los Angeles has become a laboratory of sorts.

For the first time, a jetliner outfitted to carry retardant instead of passengers was used on an active wildfire. 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 in the wings.

The U.S. Forest Service plans to send up unmanned drones to watch for fires across the West, with test flights scheduled for next month. Jumbo jets with payloads twice as large as the DC-10 have been tested.

“It’s a quantum leap,” Dennis Hulbert, a 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 Southern California blazes have scorched 86,710 acres over the last 10 days, the equivalent of 131 square miles of forest and desert. 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 fixed-wing aircraft. On Sunday, they added the maiden voyages of the special, privately owned 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.

The DC-10 let loose a total of 24,000 gallons of retardant in two drops that slowed the flames’ advance by establishing a break line over a half-mile long and 50 feet wide through a canyon. By contrast, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection air tanker with a 1,200-gallon capacity would have to make 10 drops to equal one DC-10 payload.

With a rental cost of $52,000 a day, the DC-10 is not cheap. But firefighters were impressed by its performance and won’t hesitate to use it again, said Capt. Jesse Estrada of the state forestry department.

“We’re trying to save people’s homes and protect firefighters,” Estrada 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. Soon, he found what he was looking for: a dead 80-foot tree smoldering after a lightning strike.

Just before dusk Monday, Jensen slipped off his beige flight suit and rested between missions on the tarmac of Banning Airport near the base of the San Bernardino Mountains about eight miles from the flames.

In his more than 30 years working fires, the 60-year-old pilot – who works for a Forest Service contractor – has seen more extensive air attacks on bigger wildfires. But he’s never seen one this large for a blaze of comparable size and magnitude, in part because the burned areas were so inaccessible.

“This,” he said, “is a pretty good air circus.”

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center http://www.nifc.gov

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