June 26. 2013, 1412 Hours
The incomprehensible assault of speakers, strategically placed around the facility to inflict maximum aural stress, drove Jack to seek refuge. Having failed, he spent his time attempting to comprehend the meaning of the various announcements. There appeared to be at least three different channels hosted by the system. There were a number of calls for medical aid and traffic collisions. Occasionally a stuck microphone produced a prolonged annoying buzzing background noise and in one instance some un-censored observations about the quality of life. It was after one o’clock when things started to happen.
Jack had distinctly heard a fire being reported. While transmitting the description and location, the narrative was walked on by orders on another channel, calling for various assets, and the responses from the various assets confirming they had heard the orders. Somehow, the heli-attack crew, lounging in the pilot ready room, was able to glean from the cacophony the need for their assistance and they sprang to life. Ramp personnel emerged from their shaded enclave donning fluorescent yellow vests while retardant loaders stepped from their metal shack by the large tanks containing the pre-mixed fire retardant slurry.
Jack saw Charlie leave the room at the base of the tower followed by Mark, each holding a fluttering piece of paper, and he realized it was time to head for the Air Attack plane.
Jack was the first to arrive at the plane where he waited at the cockpit door. Looking back, he watched Mark approach, trailed by another figure Jack assumed to be the Air Attack Officer. The anthill had been disturbed; people scurried about behind the approaching duo. The plaintiff wail of a helicopter engine rose as it became engorged with its helmeted equipment-laden crew. Black umbilical-like hoses were attached to the two tankers and monitored by loaders on the business end. They mimed with hand signals indicating they were ready to load to others controlling the pumps.
“Pile in,” said Mark as he arrived at the plane.
Jack stepped into the plane and twisted into the seat. Mark passed through, slipping into the pilot’s position.
“I’m Ed,” offered the Air Attack Officer. “You all hooked up?”
“I’m good,” said Jack. He watched Ed turn and secure the door while Mark fiddled with equipment in the cockpit. It took Jack awhile to find the various straps and secure them then he donned his headset. A cloud of dust swept past on the right when the helicopter lifted, then leaned into the wind. A lineman posted in front of the plane pumped his arms and the plane began to roll. Jack hadn’t realized the engines were running. His headset came alive when Mark called Fox ground control for taxi clearance.
“Can you hear me Jack?” asked Mark.
“You’re loud and clear. Ed?”
“Five by five.”
“Okay, we’re off to see the wizard,” said Mark.
Jack listened to the radio traffic between the various aircraft, the tower, the tanker base, and watched the world go by out the different windscreens. In short order they were cleared for takeoff and the scene accelerated. The plane climbed and objects below began to shrink; patterns emerged. Roads stretched across the scrubby brush covered desert forming right angles. Incongruously a green field appeared and a serpentine asphalt road racetrack wound through rolling terrain. Wind turbans sprouted like row crops in the valley and climbed the mountains to the north. The vision of a horse and rider jousting the whirling blades flashed in Jack’s mind. Was this adventure a quixotic quest for him or was there a story?
He figured out they were headed west as the Tehachapi slipped past the right wing. Crossing a ridgeline, the plane found a wall of wind sheer. Jacks’s head bounced off the side window and the skyway turned to potholes and washboard. At some point Ed had started a dialogue with the Incident Commander while Mark conversed with Los Angeles Approach, negotiating for control of the airspace above the fire. In the near distance a column of smoke boiled on a slope next to Interstate 5. The artery was clotted, traffic backed up several miles in each direction. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles were clustered adjacent to a blackened inverted triangle fringed with flames fanned by winds. The smoke column tipped to the north, a telltale of the wind direction and velocity. The fire was bent on scaling the west side of the Tejon Pass, the divide that traversed the mountains. The pass hosted a majority of the road traffic moving north or south through California; the steep grade, descending to the San Joaquin Valley to the north of the incident, was known as the Grapevine.
When the plane arrived over the fire it rolled right, into an orbit, and Jack’s view of the fire improved. Moments later, Helicopter, 502, called twelve miles east. Ed was busy sorting out priorities on the ground with the Incident Commander, the I.C., on the Air-to-Ground frequency so Mark responded on Air-to-Air with the altimeter setting, an entry altitude, then cleared them to continue.
“Let us know when you’re four miles,” instructed Mark.
“Report four miles,” came the curt reply.
The I.C. was looking for help with the head of the fire and the right flank, the downwind side. Crews had begun working the left side where the wind would move the fire away from them, barring a shift, unlikely given its sustained push from the coast to fill the heat-induced void in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I talked to Helo 502: told them to report four miles,” said Mark when Ed broke it off with the I.C.
“Thanks. We’ll have them set down at that rest stop on the west side of I-5,” said Ed. “Have you seen any water sources closer than Castaic?”
“I haven’t seen anything else,” said Mark. “There are a lot of power lines on the east side, parallel to the road.”
“I-5 Air Attack, Angeles Dispatch. Could you give us a report on conditions,” came a call on National Flight Following, NFF.
“ Angeles Dispatch, I-5 Air Attack. We’re on-scene. We’ve got about five acres burning up-slope on the west side of the freeway. I don’t see any immediate structure problems but traffic is backed up both ways. The fire is burning in grass and brush with limited access at the top. I’m talking…”
“I-5 Air Attack, this is 502. We’re four miles.”
“Stand by Angeles. The helicopter is calling,” said Ed on NFF then switched channels. “502, I-5 Air Attack. You’re cleared in at 4,500. We’ll have you set down at the rest stop on the west side of the freeway and deploy your crew. Watch out for wires on the east side of the freeway. We’re at 6,000. Nobody else on scene yet but we’re expecting two tankers.”
“Roger, Ed. I’ll let you know when we’re on the ground,” responded 502.
“I-5 Air Attack; tanker 48; 12 miles.”
Jack watched the scene on the ground and listened; the plane was occasionally rattled by turbulent air. Ed cleared Charlie, tanker 48, into the FTA after repeating the pertinent information. Angeles Dispatch was calling again but Ed had apparently tuned them out while dealing with 48, 502, and the IC. The fire continued consuming real estate and appeared to have doubled in size. Yellow-jacketed firefighters, spots on the ground, were scratching a line up the left flank. Other insect-sized men pulled hoses off reels on trucks. Another helicopter called out of the blue, a media ship. Ed responded to their request to enter the FTA telling them to stay above 7,500 feet and monitor the frequency, then he gave dispatch an update.
Jack saw the helicopter settle into the rest area raising dust and debris. Tanker 5 called fourteen miles and Ed ran through his spiel; then Charlie said he was on scene with everybody in sight. Jack scanned his limited view looking for Charlie.
“How you doing back there?” asked Mark, peering back at Jack.
“Good. This is a busy place. Where’s 48?”
“He’s in a left turn. He’ll pass your side in about 30 seconds.”
“Air Attack, 502, we’re on the deck. We’ll hook up our bucket and get back to you.”
“We’ve got two tankers on-scene. Lake Castaic is the closest water we’ve seen,” said Ed. “I’ll let you know when you’re clear to lift.”
“We’ll hold until we’re cleared,” responded 502.
“48, Air Attack, I understand you’re on-scene?”
“Yeah, we’re low at your one o’clock in a left turn.”
“We’d like to put a line from the shoulder down the right flank. You see the power lines on the east side of the highway?”
“I see the wires. Are we going to get a lead plane?”
“I have one on-order but it’ll be awhile,” replied Ed.
“I-5 Air Attack, tanker 5, we’re on-scene.”
“Roger, Bob, have you got 48 in sight?”
“Yeah, we’ll fall in behind him.”
“What do you think, Charlie? Can you work the right flank?” asked Ed.
“I think so. We’ll be working out of a right turn. We’re downwind if we’re cleared.”
Mark maneuvered the Air Attack keeping Tanker 48 in view out the right side and Jack watched it maneuver. Charlie asked what coverage lever to use and said it probably wouldn’t take the whole load. Ed replied if he had any left after the drop he could come back and put some on the head of the fire, then reminded Charlie to watch for the power lines on his exit. 502 called and Ed told him to stay on the ground until 48 had completed its drops, then he would be cleared to lift. He switched frequencies and talked to the I.C. The I.C. confirmed line was clear for the drop. Ed switched back to the Air-to-Air frequency and told Charlie, 48 was cleared to drop. Charlie acknowledged and reported “turning right base”.
Jack watched 48 rolling into a turn as he was tossed about in the Air Attack wondering what the ride was like down in the canyon where the tankers and helicopter had to work. There was some banter about the winds and what corrections to make between Charlie and Ed as the wings of 48 achieved what appeared to be an impossibly steep angle to the earth. Then the nose of the plane appeared to fall.
The plane passed through some drift smoke as it plummeted then began to roll out in line with the drifting smoke and line of flames. The plane passed the angry head of the fire before a curtain of scarlet retardant poured from its belly. Jack thought the release had been late but as he watched the wind pushed it back and the slurry settled on the fire’s edge.
A thin trail of mist followed 48 as it pitched up then rolled left over the freeway.
“We’ve got two door left,” called Charlie. “You want it on the head?”
The tank had six compartments, six doors, two compartments were left.
“Looks like it’s settling nicely. You can bring back the rest and put it on the head.”
“We’ll climb out to the north and make a 180 back for the drop,” said Charlie.
Jack lost sight of 48 and looked back to the fire. Along the stain of retardant the brush burned with little intensity and the light grass fuels were subdued, emanating wisps of smoke and steam. The IC called Ed saying he was pleased with the drop and wanted the second tanker to be used to reinforce the first drop. Ed suggested they wait and see what effect the rest of 48’s load had on the head and the IC agreed.
Jack wondered why it was taking so long for Charlie to get back and thinking how he should have taken a pee before climbing into the plane. Charlie finally called, asking if he was still cleared for a drop on the head. Ed cleared him and Charlie said he was on a mile final. Mark rolled hard right and 48 came into view. Jack watched the final, there was little drama. 48 appeared to be level, approaching the hill at an angle, then the plane rolled slightly left and the last two doors spewed red. It put a hurt on the head of the fire.
“We’re empty,” called Charlie.
“Good drop,” said Ed. “Plan on a load and return for now.”
“Roger,” replied Charlie.
Ed cleared the helicopter to lift, then called Tanker 5. A similar scenario played out although 5 dropped on the head, first, then reinforced Charlie’s drop down the flank. Jack watched when the helicopter departed with its bucket trailing on a long line then tanker 5’s drops. Ed told Tanker 5 to plan on a load and return for the moment. The Air Attack plane continued to buck occasionally while rounding the fire in its orbit. The IC was pleased with the conditions on the fire and told Ed he could hold the tankers. Ed concurred, called dispatch, told them to hold the tankers and gave them an update. The helicopter returned with a bucket of water and Ed turned him loose to support the ground troops.
The media helicopter called saying they were departing. There was a note of disappointment in the voice. He would probably have to go back and report on traffic. The Air Attack continued to spin above the fire at a leisurely pace. Jack’s bladder spoke to him and now he was hungry as well.
“You have a urinal on this boat?” asked Jack.
Mark scavenged around in the cockpit producing an empty plastic water bottle. “We recycle,” he said, handing it to Jack. “Hopefully you won’t have to take a dump. We have enough shit stories already.”
After the initial threat of the fire had been mitigated the Air Attack became the eyes in the sky for the IC, circling the fire for hours and occasionally communicating with dispatch. The helicopter reported fuel cycles.
When it got boring Mark waxed scatological recounting bowel emergencies. Pilots had employed boots, gloves, retardant tanks, and buckets. One enterprising individual, single pilot, in an S-2, had sullied a chart. The challenge had been to keep the plane upright while escaping the confines of a flight suit then squat between the seats in the cockpit. At the time the piston engines had a notoriously high failure rate. While dealing with his immediate problem he imagined what the accident report might suggest if one of his engines quit and a crash ensued.
Jack did what he could to get comfortable and closed his eyes after a couple of hours but the turbulence precluded the possibility of sleep. It was after five when they landed back at Fox field.
“What do you think?” asked Mark when the props stopped spinning on the ramp.
“I think I’ll take a pee before I volunteer next time: possibly bring a snack.”
“You did good, mate. A lot of people toss their cookies, especially in the back, getting bumped around flying in circles.”
“How many frequencies were you listening to, Ed?” asked Jack.
“Just four. It went pretty smooth today: the tankers got in and out and gave the guys on the ground what they needed to get a handle on the fire. If the fire takes off, I might have to deal with all six radios and many more resources.”
“Resources?” asked Jack.
“Airplanes, helicopters, more ground equipment, media: multiple air and ground frequencies to keep everything sorted out,” explained Ed.
“Let’s blow this Popsicle Stand,” said Mark. “My butt is numb.”
Jack fumbled with the cabin door but managed to sort out the mechanism procuring their release. He stepped out and stretched as a small tumbleweed bounded across the tarmac. After thanking Mark and Ed for the ride, he took his leave heading for the Pilot Ready Room looking for a place to deposit his plastic bottle and a more appropriate place to finish the job.
The base was a study in contrasts. The anthill was hibernating; the helicopter people were still at the fire. Jack deposited his specimen in a trashcan outside the door of the Pilot Ready Room then stepped inside. Charlie was corpse-like in a lounge chair. Jack was on a mission and passed through to the boys’ room.
Relieving himself at the urinal Jack had time to reflect. There was more to this fire thing than one might imagine. There was a structure constructed on the fire to manage the potential chaos; but making it work was like art; the Air Attack Officer was like a conductor, orchestrating an amazingly dynamic, unpredictable, potentially dangerous encounter with a force of nature. The pilots and planes, musicians and instruments. The idea that there was art involved in operating a machine was a novelty for Jack.
Back in the morgue, Charlie was stirring when Jack returned.
“What’s become of the ladies?”
“They’re keeping the local economy afloat. We have transportation now. Your car is in the parking lot with the keys inside,” said Charlie. “What do you think of the Air Attack?”
“It’s an interesting perspective, seeing how the fire evolves. Everybody seemed pleased with how it went.”
“It’s kind of ironic; when it works well we put ourselves out of business and nobody realizes anything happened.”
“The folks lined up on Interstate 5 had a show.”
“It’s nice when it works. It doesn’t always.”
Jack settled into a chair. “It’s pretty clear to me what the tankers bring to the table. It’s incredible that the program has been allowed to deteriorate. And I know it’s not just about the airplanes; there’s infrastructure and people. How many bases are there around the country?”
“Close to a hundred that can handle the large airtankers. Probably a hundred and fifty if you count the single engine, SEATS, bases as well.”
“What do you think about the SEATS?”
“They do alright.”
“Can they replace the large airtankers?”
“If you get enough of them.”
“Is that the plan?”
“It’s somebody’s plan.”
“You think that’s the Forest Service’s plan?”
“First, the SEATS are contracted through the Department of the Interior: the SEATS are Interior’s plan. Second, I think you’re giving too much credit to the people in the Forest Service who are supposed to make plans. Like they say, nature abhors a vacuum. If the planners don’t make a plan somebody else will,” said Charlie.
“You don’t have much nice to say about the Forest Service.”
Charlie pulled the lever on the side of his lounge chair and sat up.
“There are plenty of hard-working smart people in the Forest Service. People who actually get things done. I get to work with them every day. Those kind of people seem to get weeded out at the top. The ones who float to the surface are the politicians; they don’t ruffle feathers, they’re flexible. A wise man once said, ‘the key `to flexibility is indecision’. If you make a decision it might be wrong. The last guy that rose to the top and tried to make a bad system work went to prison.”
“What about the “next generation” airtankers? It sounds like some of them are finally coming on-line.”
“I’ve seen the DC-10 do some good work. It’s taken a few years for them to figure it out but they’re there. But from an old school point of view what a tanker does better than anything else is Initial Attack. Responding fast to the fire when it first starts. It’s hard to justify the cost of a DC-10, sitting around waiting at all the places there ‘might’ be a fire. Then again, another wise man once said, ‘you can never have too much retardant”.
“Where are all those wise men when you need them?”
“You should talk to Walt Darran. He knows everybody; talks to everybody. He’s a smart guy. You should talk to him.”
“How do I talk to Walt Darran?”
“He works out of Chico: flies for Cal Fire.”
“That’s a day’s drive.”
“Home of Sierra Nevada Brewery. Have a Pale Ale. You can tell your boss you’re listening to music in the Big Room.”
“You know how to sell a road trip.”
To be continued...