President’s Letter: Report From The “Front”
By Jim Davidson, PHPA President
Jim flies a UH-1 Super Huey for Orange County Fire Department. “HC41” was his call-sign for the last three days.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
05:00. Getting ready for another day of flying.
As you have seen on the news – we got hit really hard yesterday. Had a feeling that something was coming as we had a number of small fires on Friday. My main concern was to be well rested and ready for Saturday – I put in 6.6 hours yesterday dropping 80 loads of water on numerous fires – vegetation – houses – apartments and other structures. I have never seen anything like these in all of my fire-fighting days. The rate of spread was unreal – spotting ahead in all directions. Our Helispots – ground fills and refueling location were moved a number of times to stay out of the path of the fire. We are back on duty this morning – ready to move at first light.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Good morning. It’s 04:30 – were coming back on duty again this morning. Take-off is @ 05:30 Briefing is at 06:00 with aircraft on the fire by 06:30 (depending on the mission request, etc). We are now up to 22 helicopters assigned to the Triangle Complex Incident – which stretches from Corona (Green River – point of the initial start) along highway 91 to the 57 Freeway on the west and bumping Diamond Bar north of Tonner canyon stretching back again toward and thru the Chino Hills State Park. We are using every available water source as fill points – golf courses, Lakes, Ponds and the Santa Ana @ Padro Dam.
I heard Robert Butler (one of my PHPA Directors and helicopter pilots) on the radio yesterday flying Channel 4, along with Larry Welk and Alex Calder flying CBS2. We have mix of helicopters assigned from all over the country – local companies, Federal contact aircraft, State agencies, Orange County Fire, Santa Barbara Fire Department, Kings County Sheriff units, Sheriff units, Anaheim Police, etc. etc. the list goes on and on.
I put in another long day flying 6.7 hours – all snorkel work in and out of golf course ponds, lakes etc. – I myself, carried 65 loads in support of ground operations (hand crews and dozers cutting line in the Brea, Carbon Canyon, Tonner Canyon and Diamond Bar areas). We are getting assistance from Air tankers all along this front – ranging from S-2T (CDF Airtankers carrying 1200 gallons) to the DC10 (Call sign Tanker 910 carrying 12,000 gallons) and all the over head aircraft it takes to make these operations run safety.
This is what we do with helicopters; I have dropped water on houses on the interface (where the houses met the wild lands) while the ground units (Fire Engines and hand crews) are trying to battle the same raging inferno from the street side as homeowners – people rushed to get out of the houses at the same time. We used our hailers to try to alert people of the approaching fire storm and in some cases the fire raced past and over the houses before people could react to our warnings.
It’s a lot of heads up flying as we are maximizing the number of helicopters in one area at one time with visibility in the smoky conditions dropping to under a ½ mile and sometimes a lot less. But with pre-planned routes in and out of the areas and good radio communication we are able to continue to support the ground units.
An example – Anaheim Hills on Saturday afternoon (the day the fire started), we had increased from just the two of us to 12 helicopters in the loop or daisy chain – coming out of water reservoir which was 2.5 miles away the main target fires, with 20 – 30 seconds separation between helicopters to make water dropping on the interface and houses all on long the ridgeline above the 91 Freeway. All of these in very dense smoky conditions with ever changing wind patterns (winds were still @ 35-45 mph with gust 50 plus mile per hour) and moderate to heavy turbulence which made flying very interesting.
The same thing happen just before sundown yesterday (Sunday) in the Tonner Canyon / Diamond Bar area – maximizing the number of aircraft (helicopters) in a small area in support of the ground units before daylight runs out. Giving that last big push in dropping water in support of the ground units before we run out of flyable daylight.
During the last two days I’ve watched people crying and waving at the same time as we made drop after drop on their houses all day along – it’s was a sight to see. I watched one women standing on a hillside in the middle of open flames and thick heavy smoke waving a towel and pointing at houses on fire, I made drop after drop in the area for more then 30 minutes until the smoky conditions drove me out and into another area that need just as much attention. This was what we did for much of the day – Saturday – afternoon and evening until darkness and lack of visibility forced us to stop.
As you can see I’ve jumped around a little bit in describing the last couple of days, but with everything going on – the visual sensory input and the reality of the last couple of days of the flying we were doing is just starting to sink in – when you’re in the middle of “hell” it’s really hard to see the big picture or keep a real sense of time and events sometimes. It almost becomes mechanical – fly – hover fill the aircraft from a small lakes, ponds, riverbeds – take-off and fly into the inferno of smoke and fire, wild crazy winds delivering another load of water were it needed. All this takes place every 5 to 6 minutes depending on how far you have to go. Sometimes it’s only a minute or two from the water source to the target sometimes longer.
I just learned last night that I was instrumental in saving a Engine Crew on the first day in Corona. They were about to be over run by the fire on the initial attack when I made a number of water drops in support of what I thought was a very aggressive Engine attacking the fire. Not knowing that they were in trouble and were being burnt by flying embers – as they open the door to fight the fire, the Engine Captain took an ember into one of his eyes and the crew members got burnt on the hands as the fire surged forward, I just happen to be in the area and made two water drops close in – as it turned out I was the saving grace with my close-in water drops that kept them from really being burnt over and severely injured.