Is attacking a fire from the air worth it?

11:58 PM, Sep 4, 2013   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - As impressive as the aerial ballet of planes and helicopters attacking a fire can look, does it make sound fiscal and fire fighting sense?

It's a question that's led critics to refer to air drops derisively as, "CNN drops," done to impress the public and lawmakers who vote on agency budgets.

Some critics have suggested there's little benefit from air attacks on fires, who point out that no matter how much air power is used, every fire is eventually put out by nature or crews on the ground.

On that point, veteran firefighter and Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott agrees.

"[Air attacks are] one tool in the entire toolbox of fire fighting equipment," Pimlott said. "Nothing replaces the firefighter on the ground. They put the fire out."

Pimlott said aircrafts, both planes and helicopters, are part of nearly every initial attack by Cal Fire - playing an often essential role in protecting life and property and helping to knock out fires before they can spread.

"There are times where precision water drops from a helicopter will knock out the heat out of a fire, allow firefighters to get in and finish the job," Pimlott  said.

Air attack officers, the air tactical group supervisors, can look at the entire fire from high above.

"(He or she) sees where it's going, looks at both flanks and the head, looks where the threats are, looks at where roads are. Things so that he or she can use the retardant to tie in fireline," Pimlott said.

Civilians who've seen an air attack up close can be impressed with their effectiveness.

At the still-burning Rim Fire in Yosemite, the owner of a campground threatened in the fire's early days marveled at the difference an single airdrop by a huge DC-10 aircraft made as a flame front advanced.

"It saved our lives. It saved the camp's life," he said simply.

Pimlott said aircraft can also be used to shift or steer a fire in a certain direction.

"It may be away from a subdivision, it may be away from a critical drainage."

Pimlott acknowledges that fielding fire fighting aircraft is expensive, providing a strong incentive to use them efficiently.

"So were going to use those appropriately for whatever the incident commander needs to fight that fire," he said.

In a state where fire crews may respond to two or three hundred fires a week, the quick attack by aircraft is essential to keeping them from blowing up into deadly and damaging fires.

"We're keeping those small," Pimlott said. "Most people don't see those fires because they're less than ten acres. Aircraft are often an integral part of keeping them small."

After years of fire fighting, Pimlott said he reached to one inescapable conclusion.

"We know that it's worth it."


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