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Ag aviators seek expanded role in fighting fires

Issue Date: December 9, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

Suppose California had a squadron of agricultural-aviation planes that could scramble to assist with firefighting efforts at a moment's notice.

Rob Scherzinger, who chairs the California Agricultural Aviation Association, doesn't need to imagine. As a record wildfire season ravaged California, he said several dozen such pilots and aircraft sat idle.

"While California was burning, there was 37 air tankers sitting on the ground, carded and ready to go, that could have been used," Scherzinger said.

Cal Fire rarely calls on single-engine air tankers to fight fires, and Scherzinger said agricultural pilots could help.

Single-engine air tankers, or SEATS for short, are the same type of planes as those commonly seen applying seeds, fertilizer or crop-protection materials to fields.

Issac Sanchez, a Cal Fire battalion chief and spokesman, said there is no ban in place on single-engine aircraft fighting fires. Decisions as to what planes to call in are made by supervisors on the front line, he added.

"If the incident commander or the air tactical group supervisor puts a request in or has a need for an aircraft, based off of what his fire is doing or where they expect their fire to be, they place a resource order for a specific aircraft type. In this case, they would have to specifically request a SEAT in order to have them show up on their incidents," Sanchez said.

Cal Fire incident commanders will typically order twin-engine S-2T air tankers, he said, because "those resources are readily available and they meet the needs of the incident at that given moment." The planes have one pilot and can carry 1,200 gallons of retardant, according to Cal Fire figures.

"Generally speaking," he added, "any resource is ordered based off of availability and, of course, the need of the incident."

Mike Schoenau, who operates an agricultural-aviation services company in Tulare County, said single-engine air tankers are in service elsewhere in the West—"all the neighboring states," he said, as well as Alaska, Colorado, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Texas. In fact, Scherzinger and Schoenau said, they can be called on to fight fires on U.S. Forest Service land in California.

"The Forest Service had single-engine air tankers at a base up at Quincy this summer," Schoenau said. "The Bureau of Land Management also contracts single-engine air tankers that they can have at several bases."

Cal Fire did call on single-engine planes at one point during the summer, he added, but only for a short time, with the planes and pilots released within a week.

Robert Spiegel, a California Farm Bureau policy advocate, said Cal Fire has seen budget augmentations for surge capacity, but said there are underused resources that could help.

"Why are these aviators, which are arguably in short supply, not able to utilize their aircraft for firefighting services?" Spiegel asked, noting the wide variety of businesses and know-how in rural California capable of helping.

"I think what deserves a discussion is: How do you expand capacity for these activities to exist?" Spiegel said. "How can California businesses, California pilots, California contractors—how can all of those entities involved in providing services that can benefit the fire-suppression as well as land-management components be brought to the best use?"

2020 brought record-setting wildfires to a state that has seen more than its share of them in recent times, he noted.

"The rural communities are the ones that have the resources, have the businesses there and are the ones being devastated by these fires," Spiegel said. "Why not try to utilize them? They are familiar with the area, familiar with the people to be able to do the work on the landscape, to protect their own communities as well in tandem with the professionals that we have working for Cal Fire."

Schoenau said there's no lack of agricultural planes.

"One of the great things about the state of California is that you've got agricultural aircraft positioned from as far north as Willows in the north valley, all the way down as far south as Bakersfield in the south valley," he said. "Inclusive of other valleys in the state, you can't hardly draw a circle that would be a 25- or 50-mile radius where you couldn't locate two or three airplanes."

He gave an example of a fire near Highway 99 in Madera County, in which a nearby agricultural-aviation operator was able to load his planes with water and send them out to keep the fire in check until the fire department could extinguish it.

"That's the kind of public-private partnership we're talking about, where these agricultural pilots with their aircraft that are already available could jump in and meet the need," Schoenau said.

Federal contracts for single-engine tanker support require the pilots to be trained and certified by the Office of Aviation Services, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

"The basic training requirement is that they have 200 hours of low-level agricultural experience," Schoenau said; by that standard, he added, almost every agricultural-aviation pilot in the state would qualify. To earn their firefighting certification, pilots need to know how to navigate hilly or mountainous terrain, and take a course in Sacramento.

Scherzinger and Schoenau also said larger tankers can only operate from certain airfields, whereas single-engine air tankers can operate from smaller airports, provided their runways are long enough—allowing a wider variety of bases to be used.

"This time of year, we get the Santa Ana winds," Schoenau said. "They could have those assets deployed down there ready to go, and very typically these single-engine air tankers are parked with the load already on board. So the response time is literally minutes."

That fast response is key, Scherzinger said.

"The quicker you can get a resource onto a fire, the smaller it's going to be," he said. "If you can get it within a certain period of time, you have a lot better chance of containing the fire when it's a baby fire."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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