Every day this week, one of the biggest weapons in the state’s fight against the wine country fires has flown back and forth between Santa Rosa and McClellan airfield in suburban Sacramento.
The Boeing 747 supertanker, capable of dropping 18,000 gallons of fire retardant in a single pass, lands at McClellan and takes around 20 minutes to refuel and reload with retardant. Then it takes off again to release its contents along the perimeter of the Tubbs Fire near Santa Rosa or the other blazes in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Three orange-and-white McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and numerous other aircraft make the same trips, helping firefighters halt the wildfires that have burned huge swaths of Northern California, killed more than two dozen residents and left thousands of families homeless.
The air drops can hold a fire in check until ground forces can cut a fuel break, said Jon Grissom, manager of the air tanker base at McClellan and a captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
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A former leader of ground crews, Grissom said he knows how important it is for the air tankers to help firefighters on the front lines, especially in this week’s extreme conditions.
“It’s just brutal out there,” Grissom said. “You’re dealing with the terrain and the fuels and the wind.”
At McClellan, the air tankers work from 8 a.m. to dark if conditions allow. Sometimes smoke hangs so heavy on the ground that pilots can’t see to fly. It’s an inherently dangerous job for the pilots and crews, who fly in hazardous conditions at low altitudes.
The massive red-and-white 747, called the “Spirit of John Muir,” slows and drops to about 200 feet above the treeline before releasing its cargo – a mixture of water, fire-inhibiting chemicals and red dye for visibility.
The fires this week have kept planes flying at a record clip, officials said. Multiple planes line up at McClellan’s five “pits,” where crews pump in fuel and fire retardant at the same time. Then they take off again for the fires in the north state’s coastal ranges.
“At 9 a.m. we started launching,” Grissom said late Tuesday afternoon, “and we haven’t stopped since.”