It’s been a busy summer. I’m flying an OV-10 Air Attack and staying marginally proficient with occasional flights in the S-2T. It’s been thirty-four years since I flew Air Attack and it has changed a bit. I went to work in April but it was July before we lost the first fire, the Wragg. It grew to 8000 thousand acres destroying two out buildings. It cleaned up a lot of brush. Fortuitously, based on the burning indexes, we picked up a couple of potentially destructive starts, starts with forest structure interface, because resources were plying the skies working the Wragg Fire.
The next big thing was the Rocky Fire. It started in the back of a pot growers cabin. It might have been corralled but a second fire broke out about a mile west, immediately threatened structures, and it was off to the races. 70,000 acres, 43 residences, and 53 outbuildings later it was contained.
I thought we’d hold the Jerusalem Fire at a half-acre but the second tanker had a bad igniter and was late to the party. Another 25,000 acres of brush cleared, 6 residences and 21 structures written off.
We were on a roll for weeks, holding off one or two starts a day until the Valley fire. It began less than a mile from Boggs Helitack Base. When we arrived on-scene copter 104, from Boggs, was doing bucket work supporting its crew from a pond about a half-mile upwind. Four of the crew had separated, walking in checking residences to make sure they had been evacuated. The fire was three or four acres burning up a small hill in brush and timber pushed by the wind. The Air Attack Officer remarked how he had been thinking we were due to loose one.
Immediately it started spotting a quarter mile in front of the head, beyond four to eight properties with multiple structures lined up in the path of the advancing flame front. A paved road out in front was a thin hope for containment. Spots sprouted like mushrooms in light grassy fuels and tanker drops were directed for structure protection and efforts to contain the spread in the light fuels.
The usual chaos of radio traffic generated by a new fire emanated from the six radios in the Air Attack platform, all insistently demanding priority. The Air Attack Officer immediately grew the resource orders for airtankers, a lead plane, helicopters, engines, crews, and dozers responding to requests from the ground and his own judgment of the situation.
It was apparent the fire was going to get ugly quick threatening the town of Cobb. That’s about when out of the din of radio traffic we heard the helitack crew call saying they were deploying shelters.
I wheeled the Air Attack in a tight circle over their last reported position, the right shoulder. Copter 104 with a bucket of water queried the crew, trying to locate them. The fire was spreading laterally and what had been a well defined position became a matter of speculation.
“Can you see blue sky!”
“No,” was the terse response.
The Air Attack Officer began describing our best guess of their location to two circling S-2 tankers while we pin-wheeled overhead trying to pierce the flames and smoke, hoping for a glimpse of the foil enclosures.
“We’re next to a metal building!” called the strained pitchy voice of the Captain.
“Any blue sky!” called the pilot of 104.
There was no reply.
Sheltered in thermal reflecting aluminum bags with skins thickness measured in millimeters the crew of 104 bedded down in the inferno.
The pilot of 104 continued calling, “Crew 104!” over and over.
After minutes of silence there was a last pleading call from the flames. “104.”
It was their last transmission.
The fire had been burning for about a half hour when we heard the last call from the trapped crew. An hour into the fire rows of houses in the town of Cobb were being consumed while air resources concentrated on supporting the evacuation efforts. In at least one instance tanker drops were directed to protect people fleeing, on foot, and being overtaken by flames.
The four crew burned over were eventually located by their brethren who risked their own lives in the effort. They were transported to Boggs Helitack Base by pickup where two were loaded onto separate medevac ships and flown to UC Davis Burn Center: the last two were transported by 104 from Boggs Helitack to Davis. Minutes after 104 departed Boggs the base was burned over.
In almost any situation a series of events line up leading to an outcome. At the Valley Fire the most chilling unseen component, in my mind, was an unusual localized wind event spawned by the breakdown of a hurricane off the coast of California. Winds on the fire were initially between ten and thirteen when the fire started. They were reported to be 53 knots by one aircraft an hour into the conflagration. Positions deemed defensible from past experience were cooked by radiant heat and unseen moving masses of superheated air created by churning vortices and the desiccated vegetation.
The fire consumed over 50,000 acres in the first eight hours.
It’s now Monday morning and it’s interesting to read and hear the pundits. It refreshing to see the out porting of support from the community in support of those affected.
It is my hope that those compelled to place blame or assign responsibility will recognize that fighting fire is an imperfect science and a potentially deadly occupation. And that the lessons learned will be implemented to facilitate more desirable outcomes.