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GRASS VALLEY, Calif. November 2, 2016 – A little over a week ago, locals heard the familiar sound of air tankers and the “spotter” plane for the last time this year. The planes took off for their winter quarters at CAL FIRE’s McClellan base after an “average” season, as described by Battalion Chief Jake Sjolund, the head of the Grass Valley Air Attack Base (GVAAB).
Sjolund shared some statistics for the base which was in active operation from June 13th to October 24th. During the 4-month period 255,107 gallons of retardant were pumped at the base. (10 year annual average=362,493 gallons – including the 2008 lightning event, the American Fire and the King Fire.)
The pink slush, used to “paint the ridgelines” and slow the progression of a fire, is mixed at the facility and a trained team is on hand to “hot load” aka refill Tanker 88 and 89 with up to 1,200 gallons of retardant.
The GVAAB responds to fires in an area extending from Lake Oroville to the north to Plymouth in the south and everything east of I-5 and west to the Nevada stateline. In 2016, the largest fire in the base’s response area was the 5,646-acre Trailhead Fire. This fire started on June 28 and was fully contained on July 18, 2016.
Air Attack 230, the “spotter” plane, responded to 138 fires (55 less fires than in 2015) and flew 173 hours (the 5-year flight hour average is 199.65 hours.) Having eyes in the sky is an important tool for firefighters, especially during the initial attack on a new incident. Sizing up a fire, identifying hazards to firefighters like power lines and directing tankers and helicopters a part of their day to day operations.
Air Tanker 88 responded to 169 fires and flew 124 hours, while Air Tanker 89 responded to 130 fires and flew 112 hours. They are part of the 22 S-2Ts in CAL FIRE’s fleet.
The fleet was acquired from the Department of Defense in 1996 for $1 per plane. Prior to that, between 1958 and 1975, the U.S. Navy put these planes to use as anti-submarine planes operating from carriers. That’s why the S-2s have foldable wings – a feature much appreciated at McCllellan’s hangars.
Some of the 2016 fires where locals were glad to have these workhorses nearby: First, there was the Rush Fire, on San Francisco Street across of Rush Street in North San Juan on June 25th, with another fire in the Higgins area a short time later.
Fast-forward through the Red, Idaho, Yuba, Penny, Walsh, Gracie, Red Dog, Grizzly, Jaguar and many more through September.
Both tankers have a range of 500 miles when loaded, a wingspan of 73 feet and can operate continuously for 4.5 hours. The tankers were available to respond to fires outside their normal response area. For example, they were used during the Clayton Fire in Lake County.
Air Attack and the tankers will be back for another season in 2017 and we’ll continue to answer the question “I just heard the planes, where’s the fire?”