Seen those tankers above Sacramento? The low-down on Cal Fire's biggest base at McClellan

Cal Fire air tankers reload fire retardant at McClellan

Cal Fire air tankers reload at McClellan airport to battle wildfires in California.
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Cal Fire air tankers reload at McClellan airport to battle wildfires in California.

Sacramento County might not appear like it's in the heat of the firefighting action, but it plays a vital role in the efforts to dampen blazes.

About 1 million gallons of fire retardant have been deployed out of Sacramento McClellan Airport as of Monday, July 2, according to Cal Fire's Amador-El Dorado County Unit. An "astonishing" 212,688 gallons left McClellan reload station to be dropped in efforts to fight Northern California fires – on Sunday alone, Cal Fire tweeted.

Cal Fire was equipped and ready to send air support to contain the Pawnee Fire, fight the County Fire and battle other new starts amid the weekend’s scorching heat and red-flag-warning conditions, which included gusts of wind that blew smoke as far as the Bay Area.

McClellan has become a permanent part of Cal Fire’s operations, according to Cal Fire Officer Brice Bennett.

“In the past, McClellan reload base was used temporarily when needed, but that is changing," Bennett said.

McClellan Air Tanker Reload Base is located at the former air force base near North Highlands. It is within McClellan Park, a census-designated place that serves largely as a business park.

When firing on all cylinders, the Cal Fire crew of 15 to 30 personnel can manage the operations of 17 to 20 Large and Very Large Air Tankers (LATs and VLATs, respectively) and move hundreds of thousands of gallons of retardant a day.

On Tuesday afternoon, a white-and-orange LVAT rolled onto McClellan's tarmac, back from a flight over the County Fire. Men in bright vests rushed to its side, hooked up thick hoses to its retardant compartment, and started pumping. McClellan operates in a constant state of "organized chaos," Bennett said, as another plane began to descend toward the base.

“We can turn around a DC-10 in 15 minutes and that's insane,” said Bennett, referring to the VLAT that can carry 12,000 gallons of retardant.

“Stop, hit the blocks, get a full tank of retardant and fuel in 15 minutes ... That's seriously F-1 racecar, pit-fuel style,” he said.

In a half-hour, both tankers had taken off. For a few minutes, the whirring was quiet. Then another plane came screeching down the runway, and the process began again.

The turnaround time, combined with McClellan's extra-long 10,600-foot runway, allows the base to service LATs and VLATs for fires as far away as Southern California, Oregon, and Nevada.

The retardant, a mixture of fertilizer and water with a consistency Bennett described as "runny milkshake," is dyed pink so pilots can see it from on high.

McClellan keeps 100,000 gallons of it stockpiled in rows of hulking, black and white plastic bags adjacent to the tarmac. As fire hoses pump the retardant into awaiting LVATs, the bridge above the pumps vibrates, echoing the colossal whir of the tanker's engine.

The VLATs that Cal Fire uses are refurbished passenger planes contracted by private companies. The body of the aircraft, where passengers would have sat, is completely empty -- all the retardant is stored in a compartment below the plane's stomach.

The reload base became permanent this year after being staffed on a temporary basis for the last eight years, Bennett explained. The permanent presence means Cal Fire personnel are assigned to the site and not borrowed from other assignments.

McClellan reloads more planes than any other base in California, Bennett said. Not only that, it handles the management and repairs of all Cal Fire-associated aircrafts – in the winter, airplanes and helicopters from across the state fly to Sacramento to be serviced.

As the operations on the airfield have changed, so has fire season. In fact, even fire vocabulary is changing, according to Bennett, who doesn't use the term "fire season" anymore “because its year-round.”

This new, perennial operation entails “staffing engines year-round, doing fuel reduction programs year-round,” Bennett said.

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