The Guardians: Columbia Air Attack Crews Primed for 2015 Wildfire Fight

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls June 15, 2015 10:32

 This article appeared in our Summer 2015 issue, prior to the Sept. 9 start of the disastrous Butte Fire that has taken a heavy toll in Amador and Calaveras counties. It gives readers a sense of what these men and women train for, and the important roles the Columbia base and aerial defense have in protecting lives and homes. For detailed wildfire safety tips, read Chris Bateman’s 2012 article, “Wildfire safety: How advance planning can help you survive.”  For emergency numbers and information sources, visit FAN’s Resource HQ page for fire emergency information.

Battalion Chief Frank Podesta at the Columbia Air Attack Base as 2015 helitack crew trains

Battalion Chief Frank Podesta at the Columbia Air Attack Base as 2015 helitack crew trains

For more than 50 years, planes and helicopters from the Columbia Air Attack Base have been plying the skies of the Mother Lode – and far beyond – in the tireless mission of protecting land, residents and structures from wildfire.

“Our goal is to contain 95 percent of our fires to 10 acres or less,” says Frank Podesta, the Cal Fire battalion chief in charge of the base for the past nine years.

For every disastrous blaze – the kind that grabs headlines and ensures visits by grandstanding politicians from Sacramento – nine or more potentially dangerous fires are stopped short by the Columbia base’s quick action.

“We have a lot of initial-attack fires you don’t hear about,” says Podesta, 59, part of the Columbia operation since 1993.

It’s all about aggression, tempered by a strong dose of safety.

“This is a very aggressive base – not to the point of being unsafe, but knowing the effects if you delay,” says 70-year-old Jim Dunn, who piloted Columbia’s familiar Grumman S2 Firecat air tankers for 25 years before retiring in 2013. “They use that base like a fire station. They dispatch on a radio call.”

Columbia pilots scramble on orders from the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Command Center in San Andreas, and can be airborne in three minutes with a 1,200-gallon load of retardant. Once back on the ground after a drop, they can be off and winging again in three to four minutes, as ground personnel work like NASCAR pit crews.

Air tanker piloted by Jim Dunn drops retardant on the August 2013 Power Fire, at Donnell Power House along the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River near the Beardsley Lake inlet

Air tanker piloted by Jim Dunn drops retardant on the August 2013 Power Fire, at Donnell Power House along the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River near the Beardsley Lake inlet

“It can get very exciting when things are hopping,” Podesta says. “It’s controlled chaos.”

Columbia is one of 12 air tanker and 10 helicopter bases statewide, but one of just two equipped with both (the other is in Riverside County). The bases are strategically located so that air tankers can be over a fire just about anywhere in the state within 20 minutes, says Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire chief of public information.

“The Columbia Air Attack Base plays a vital role,” Berlant says, “being the first attack on any fire in the Sierra Nevada from Amador County down into the eastern Sierra.”

Air-Attack-FN00007-editedColumbia’s aircraft can reach the Oregon border or Southern California within about an hour, though the base’s official priorities are Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties, the Stanislaus National Forest, part of the El Dorado National Forest to Placerville in the north, part of Yosemite National Park and Mariposa County to the south, and the Bishop area and Inyo County to the east.

Hotspots vary. Last year’s major fires were in the Amador-El Dorado Unit and further south near Mariposa and Madera, Podesta says. The year before that, of course, Tuolumne County was devastated by the 257,314-acre Rim Fire, the largest wildfire in Sierra Nevada history and the third biggest in state history.

The Columbia base boasts two S2-Ts – initial-attack air tankers that can carry 1,200 gallons of retardant – one UH-1H Super Huey helicopter and a North American Rockwell OV-10A Bronco, commonly known as the spotter plane.

Air-Attack-FN00124-editedPodesta directs attacks from the spotter. What is now the S2-T (T for turbine) originally was designed as a submarine hunter launched from aircraft carriers during the Korean War. The Huey was on the cutting edge of air cavalry development in Vietnam, and the OV-10A saw its first multipurpose combat action in Vietnam as well.

One of Columbia’s S2s – there are 22 in the state fleet – dates to the 1950s and the other to the early 1970s. Despite their age, Podesta says the planes have low hours in terms of airframe use and have been fully modernized.

Even the retardant is better. It has a jazzy name, MVP-FX, and comes to Columbia from a plant in Southern California. Attila Horvath, in charge of retardant at the base, says the new formula is more environmentally friendly – “It makes things grow”– than the old type that contained cyanide as a bonding agent.

While the air tankers drop retardant – bright pink so pilots can see where it lands – the helicopter can drop water, start backfires and insert ground crews into fire scenes.

“We are the initial attack on the fire,” Podesta says, “but the people who really put the fire out are the ground crews.”

On larger fires, those crews may include county, state and federal firefighters. Air attack personnel work in concert with ground crews, and each group appreciates the other.

“It’s a great help for us,” says firefighter Eric Taylor, stationed in Amador County. “They’re our eyes above. It’s highly important. Without them responding, we wouldn’t know what the fire is doing.”

“They can get there faster than our ground crews,” says Lisa Williams, Cal Fire information officer for the unit’s San Andreas headquarters. “They can see what’s ahead of the fire.”

Some of the base's firefighters: Austin Palmiere (left), Chris Johnstad, Phil Michael, Matt Kaufman, Jared Van Bolt, Josh Price

Some of the base’s firefighters: Austin Palmiere (left), Chris Johnstad, Phil Michael, Matt Kaufman, Jared Van Bolt, Josh Price

Dunn says the firefighters with boots on the ground can inspire those in the air.

“They all have a can-do attitude,” Dunn says. “You see them doing all they can on a 107-degree day, and you have to match them. They need you.”

During the Rim Fire, Dunn saw 200-foot-high flames bearing down on “two little red trucks” at the end of a day. He flew over the same spot the next day and saw that the crews had stopped the fire right there. “I was so proud of them,” he says.

Some of the air attack pilots are ex-military, and some are former Alaskan bush pilots, while others come from corporate or commercial backgrounds.

Columbia air tanker painted Jawbone Ridge with retardant on Aug. 17, 2013, the first day of the Rim Fire. "At this time the fire was only 200 acres," notes photographer Al Golub, who took this shot, "but the next morning the fire had made it to the bottom of the Tuolumne River."

Columbia air tanker painted Jawbone Ridge with retardant on Aug. 17, 2013, the first day of the Rim Fire. “At this time the fire was only 200 acres,” notes photographer Al Golub, who took this shot, “but the next morning the fire had made it to the bottom of the Tuolumne River.”

Columbia’s 2015 air tanker pilots, 16-year veteran Rich Schlink and Bryan Combs, who is approaching his 10th year, come from the civilian aviation ranks and both were spotter pilots before attaining tanker status. Schlink also is an instructor who will tutor a trainee pilot this season at Columbia. Schlink will be in his second year at Columbia, Combs his first. The OV-10A pilot will be Jeff Sheftal, transferring in from Chico.

Whatever their personal histories, pilots all face risks as they roar into smoke, flames, wind and hostile terrain – any of which could kill them.

Many have likened the risks to those taken by combat pilots. While fire pilots are not being shot at, they operate close to the ground in often-terrifying conditions, and they share one particular danger with their combat brethren. That’s “target fixation,” which Dunn says can lead pilots to concentrate on their targets to the exclusion of all else.

“If that is your only focus and you’re a hair off …” Dunn says quietly.

Dunn says the flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants image these pilots once had has faded a bit with heightened training and safety standards. Those legends of old days, the swashbucklers who supposedly kept booze bottles in the cockpit, spurned training and jealously guarded their attack techniques, survive only in stories.

The dangers present-day Columbia pilots face, however, are the same.

Helicopter's water bucket, 2,500 pounds when fully loaded

Helicopter’s water bucket, 2,500 pounds when fully loaded

Dunn knew all about risk while serving as a door gunner on, of all things, a Huey in the 1st Air Cavalry of “Apocalypse Now” fame, and then as a Special Forces Green Beret in Vietnam.

After his military service, Dunn found success but no satisfaction as a corporate and airline pilot. He decided to try aerial firefighting after seeing the 1989 movie “Always,” starring Richard Dreyfuss as a bomber pilot.

“I said, ‘Man, I want to do that!’ I wanted to be like the World War II generation of pilots. They went from biplanes to flying supersonic transports. They flew everything. That’s what I’d always wanted to do.”

Flying out of Ukiah in 1990 on one of his first fires, Dunn got into deep trouble. In the Eel River Canyon near Willits, he experienced a “stick shaker,” the control stick violently shaking in his hand as the forest rushed up and smoke enveloped his plane.

Dunn somehow climbed out of the smoke, alive and aloft, and heard the relieved observer in the spotter plane radio to him, “Oh, 9-6 (his plane’s tail number), I thought we’d lost you.”

Josh Price (left) and Matt Kaufman work with mock patient on Stokes litter

Josh Price (left) and Matt Kaufman work with mock patient on Stokes litter

Dunn’s take? “Never give up trusting God,” he says. “I have always felt like I was looked after. Once or twice every fire season, there’d be something that came up. I had to look to a higher being. I couldn’t take credit for the escapes.”

Some haven’t been so fortunate. Hollister-based Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt, 62, died last October when his S2-T crashed while fighting a fire near Yosemite.

Columbia-based pilots have perished, too. James Eakin was lost on a fire near Keystone in 1982, Richard Boyd and Clarence “Bob” Lind on a 1986 training flight in the Stanislaus River canyon, and Roger Stark on a 1992 fire near West Point, in Calaveras County. Columbia helitack firefighter Eva Schike, 24, died in 2004 when flames overran her crew in the Tuolumne River canyon east of Groveland. She was the first Cal Fire woman to die in the line of duty.

A year after his harrowing Eel River escape, Dunn nearly crashed again, in 1991 on his first training flight out of Columbia. He returned to base with tree limbs protruding from his bomb bay door. The culprit: a faulty airspeed gauge that caused him to fly 20 knots slower than the 120 he needed to stay aloft – a stick-shaker of the first order.

His mechanic discovered that the gauge dated back to the plane’s Korean War-era origins and started on 20 instead of zero. And so it was in those days, when pay was low, equipment and maintenance were sketchy, and the flight characteristics of the S2s caused them to stall and violently “snap roll” at low speeds.

Air-Attack-FN00002-editedStarting about then, Dunn said, every aspect of the profession completely changed for the better.

Dunn worked as an instructor the last 15 years of his career, teaching fellow pilots how to calculate their drops by understanding the dynamics of wind, terrain and airspeed. Some fancy flying remains involved, but always with an eye toward safety.

“We decided which way was safest and we went that way,” Dunn says. “The really good pilots are the ones who admit mistakes, evaluate themselves and do better.”

Top pilots, says Dunn, can put their retardant drops on target 80 percent of the time, either directly on the flames, in the path of fire or occasionally on firefighters or equipment in extreme situations. The other 20 percent, he adds, “is out of your control because of unseen factors.”

Those include unexpected wind shifts or gusts and vagaries in often smoke-covered terrain that disguise the steepness of slopes.

Jim Dunn with wife Liz on his retirement day in 2013

Jim Dunn with wife Liz on his retirement day in 2013

Dunn retired after 2013’s Rim Fire. He still aches from that horrible blaze, which threatened Groveland and Tuolumne and destroyed huge swaths of forest and wildlife habitat in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park.

“We had retardant all around it the first day,” Dunn says sadly.

Despite the pilots’ efforts, the fire exploded into an unrelenting, two-month calamity. Columbia was a tanker beehive during the fire, with six to eight planes working out of the base at a given time and as many as three being loaded with retardant at once – up to 100,000 gallons daily.

Catastrophic as the Rim Fire was, it could have been worse without the Columbia base.

“Having a close retardant base definitely helped to keep it smaller than it could have been,” Podesta says. “Without this base, fires would be larger and more life-threatening, and property damage would be much greater.”

Columbia’s 2015 fire season officially began May 18, and continuing drought conditions fuel worries of an explosive season ahead.

Schlink notes that the vast majority of fires “start because of people.” He reasons that a lack of water may keep tourism down, and fewer potentially careless visitors should mean fewer wildfires.

Podesta says Columbia crews are ready for whatever comes. “A lot of it is based on the weather – particularly lightning storms – and the human factor,” he says. “We’re hearing reports that it could be bad, but we’ll just kind of play it by ear and hope for the best.”

Adds Schlink: “Everyone’s trained … everyone’s ready to go.”

Firefighter Josh Price, laden with gear

Firefighter Josh Price, laden with gear

Columbia Air Attack Base by the Numbers

The Columbia base is a vital part of the state’s aerial defense against wildfire. Established in the late 1950s, about a quarter-century after the airport opened as Ralph Field in 1935, it is at the north end of Columbia Airport off North Airport Road.

7  Maximum number of hours pilots can fly per day between sunup and sunset, per Cal Fire policy.

39  Base staff during fire season, providing 24/7 coverage. Fixed wing: One battalion chief, two captains, one engineer, nine firefighters, three pilots, one mechanic. Helitack: Four captains, two helicopter pilots, two engineers, 14 firefighters.

60-70  Pounds of gear carried by each helitack firefighter at fire scenes.

80s  The age some Cal Fire pilots have reached before retirement, as there is no age limit. Pilots can continue to fly as long as they pass an annual flight physical.

100  Gallons of jet fuel the firefighting helicopter burns hourly.

150  Average number of fires Columbia Air Attack Base crews respond to each year.

280  Number of incidents Columbia’s air tankers responded to during the 2014 fire season, May through November – two months longer than usual because of drought conditions. The base helicopter responded 194 times and unloaded 482,000 gallons of water on trouble spots. Air tankers are not kept at Columbia off-season, but the helicopter is on duty year-round and can also be deployed to rescue those injured in car crashes or wilderness mishaps.

324  Gallon capacity of the helicopter’s water bucket, which weighs about 2,500 pounds fully loaded.

490,000  Gallons of fire retardant the base’s two air tankers dropped on fires last year.

$880,000  Annual operating budget for the base. Additional costs due to emergencies are charged to the state’s emergency fund or reimbursed by other agencies, according to Cal Fire’s Josh White.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls June 15, 2015 10:32
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