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Two firefighting helitankers in Napa/Sonoma

Two firefighting helitankers in Napa/Sonoma
Photo by Cole Euken

CAL FIRE’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit (LNU) welcomed two additional type-1 helitankers to the unit, which covers Sonoma Valley, earlier this summer. The helitankers will be used exclusively for aerial firefighting operations in the LNU.

Helitanker 1CH, from Columbia Helicopters, is based out of Napa County Airport, and Helitanker 37S, from Siller Brothers, is based out of the Sonoma Air Attack base at the Sonoma County Airport, according to a press release announcing the additions. Three large helicopters now serve the region, including CAL FIRE’s own type-1 Hawk “Copter 104,” based in Lake County.

The helitankers are positioned to not only arrive more quickly at any new fire within the unit, but can also be dispatched to multiple fires occurring at the same time. They are also available for fire assignments in the greater Bay Area and the rest of California, according to the release.

CAL FIRE’s staffed helicopters are augmented, when needed, by exclusive-use (EU) contracted, or “call when needed,” helicopters, such as the two helitankers now exclusive to the LNU. CAL FIRE acknowledged the reliability and dependability of EU contracts, noting they provide “greater efficiencies in getting helicopters to the initial attack stage of fires.”

Helitanker 1CH, a Boeing CH-47D Chinook, has been on contract at Napa County Airport since June 16. This helitanker holds up to 2,800 gallons of water in a fixed tank permanently attached to the aircraft. The fixed tank system provides a safer operation because no bucket hangs underneath the helicopter while in flight.

Helitanker 37S, a Sikorsky S64E Skycrane, has been on contract at the Sonoma County Airport since July 1. This helitanker holds up to 2,000 gallons of water in a fixed tank.

These “water droppers” will enhance CAL FIRE’s operations, ensuring “mission-critical resources are always available to respond to emergency fire events and operate safely in the field,” the release states. Their assignments “will not only increase our initial attack strength dramatically but will also reduce the time in getting these valuable resources to our large fires as well.”

The helitankers will help fight the new norm: wildfires that spread rapidly, ignite concurrently, and occur in areas throughout the state previously thought to be immune to large, damaging fires. The release notes the entire state is at a greater risk of major fires than at any other time in recorded history, including the redwood forests along the coast and more temperate areas of Northern California, as evidenced by the 2020 San Mateo and Santa Cruz Unit Lightning Complex, which burned over 86,000 acres and destroyed 1,490 structures along the Coast Range of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.

The state has three large air tankers on EU contracts this year, with 3,000 and 4,000-gallon capacities, well as those normally available through its partnership with the U.S Forest Service. CAL FIRE copters include the CAL FIRE Hawk, out of Boggs Mountain, and CAL FIRE air tankers based out of Sonoma, Ukiah, Sacramento, and Chico.

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