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GRASS VALLEY - Cal Fire's fleet of firefighting aircraft and crews are ready for a long and difficult fire season.

"The norm has changed. We're starting a lot earlier, our training is a lot earlier. A lot more activity, sooner," Cal Fire air attack officer Captain Kurt Chamberlin said.

The season has started six weeks earlier than it used to the past two years, Chamberlin pointed out.

A call for help came into the Grass Valley air attack base just after 6:30 p.m. on Friday. It was a request for the base's two S-2 air tankers to assist at the Valley Fire in the foothills east of Modesto.

Their response began with the radio frequencies the aircraft will use.

"They'll give us all the information on the frequencies that we're gonna have, ground troops that are gonna be there and then we'll take off," Chamberlin said as pilots headed for their aircraft. The two tankers were airborne a handful of minutes after the call came in.

The planes and helicopters are vital to firefighting, often slowing fires down until crews can arrive.

"Often, in some of the rural areas, the more remote areas, aircraft's the first one to get in there. They can usually hold that fire until the ground crews get in there and actually get it extinguished," Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said. "That retardant basically sticks to whatever it hits and it stays wet... so that will help slow the progress of the fire.

At air attack bases in Southern California the fire season never ended.

"Southern California, they didn't have an opportunity to close down. Some of the bases that were on the central coast, they shut down for one week and then they reopened," Chamberlin said.

Attacks on fires often begin with overflights by twin engine OV-10 air attack aircraft, a plane used during the Vietnam War for observation. "That's what we use to tell the tankers, helicopters, guide them into where we're going to make our fire attack. We want to coordinate that with the ground troops." Chamberlin said.

The tankers are often next, sweeping in to make spectacular retardant drops as firefighters move in. "They can lay down a carpet or they actually do the pinpoint drops. We'll do multiple drops to box it in," Chamberlin said.

The idea is to cool down and slow the fire until crews can knock it out on the ground. In a worst case situation, drops can be made on or near firefighters or civilians who are in danger.

"We try not to drop on them because that is a lot of weight. If we can, we drop in the proximity of them, so they have an escape route," Chamberlin said.

As the two tankers headed south from his air attack base, Chamberlin headed back to the crew staging area, ready to follow their progress at their latest fire.

"We're prepared and we're ready for this season," he said.

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