Photo: YubaNet

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. May 31, 2017 – As of today, the Grass Valley Air Attack Base (GVAAB) is open for reloading, marking the unofficial start of the 2017 fire season. Final training sessions for planes, pilots and crews will be held over the next few days. The base will be fully operational by June 15 or earlier should the need arise.

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.

Faster reloads – more airtime over fires

The monument sign at the intersection of Brunswick Road and Loma Rica Drive is not the only new addition to the Nevada County Airport, far from it. The Grass Valley Air Attack Base is sporting new and improved pipes from the retardant plant to the runway, cutting reload time for air tankers from up to 7 minutes down to 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

Photo: YubaNet

Battalion Chief Jake Sjolund is in charge of the CAL FIRE Grass Valley Air Attack Base and spearheaded last year’s upgrade to the retardant mixing plant. He and his team continued the modernization effort with a new distribution system for the three reloading stations. Backup power and additional pipelines running water directly to the runways complete the retrofit.

“Having the ability to load retardant or water is greatly enhancing our capabilities. During training flights, the pilots drop water instead of retardant. When we send a plane back to McClellan for maintenance and the pilot sees a grass fire on their way down, they can drop right then and there,” Sjolund said. “Most importantly, it minimizes the time aircraft will have to spend on the tarmac.”

During the Robbers Fire, the GVAAB loaded 110,000 gallons of retardant in one day. The S-2Ts stationed at GVAAB can carry retardant loads of up to 1,200 gallons. The newly increased capacity could more than double the output. The power backup and redundant pump systems will keep the base operational in case of power outages or primary equipment failure.

Planes will be back on base shortly

The GVAAB will have the usual CAL FIRE and Forest Service airplanes available during the summer.

Photo: YubaNet

In 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. 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 2016 Clayton Fire in Lake County.

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 where the planes are stored and overhauled every winter season.

The Tahoe National Forest will have Air Attack 17 stationed at the base. Helicopter 514 is already at the Whitecloud helibase on Hwy 20 and another Type 1 helicopter will return  from an out-of-state assignment later this year.