Firefighters lacked water-dropping aircraft in first hours of wildfires in wine country

  • Firefighter Mario Topete attacks flames as his unit tries to prevent a fire from crossing Highway 29 north of Calistoga on Oct. 12, 2017. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Marcus Yam

Los Angeles Times
Published: 10/19/2017 3:37:13 PM

NAPA, Calif. — In the first critical hours of the wildfires that swept through wine country this month, firefighters struggled to defend homes without the help of water-dropping aircraft.

Fire officials said there were no helicopters or planes capable of slowing the fast-moving fires the night of Sunday, Oct. 8, as flames swept into Sonoma and Napa county neighborhoods, eventually destroying more than 5,000 structures and killing more than 40 people.

It was not until the next morning that aircraft were able to move into the fire zone, they said. The problem, officials said, is that there are no firefighting aircraft in the region capable of flying at night.

Officials say that in the case of the wind-whipped wine country fires, they doubt more air support that night would have made a major difference, but they say it’s a resource gap they plan to fill going forward.

“The idea that a helicopter or night flying air attack would stop a fire in the middle of night is really is a misconception,” said Cal Fire’s assistant director of planning, Daniel Berlant. “Aircraft have slowed down fires when conditions are right, but ground crews are the critical force.”

Other fire experts agreed, saying the force of the winds and flames were so intense that water drops probably would have done little to halt the flames during those first critical hours.

“Stopping a wildfire of this ferocity and intensity is like trying to stop a tornado,” said Robert Baird, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service in California. Night flights can be “hugely beneficial,” he said, but “there is a huge limitation when the wind is blowing.”

Night flights have made a big difference in other cases, and some departments have increased those capabilities.

The Los Angeles Fire Department now has seven aircraft capable of night flights, and the agency has used them to halt several dangerous fires before they spread to residential areas.

In 2008, the department got attention for a daring night flight that threatened upscale homes as well as the Getty Museum in Brentwood.

Just this week, a brush fire in Griffith Park barely had time to get bigger than an acre before helicopters drenched it with precision water drops and ground crews snuffed what was left.

LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey said the night attack can make a big difference, but there are significant limitations during a huge wind-whipped blaze.

“The issue of air attack: This is the sad thing, it’s not succinct,” said spokesman Brian Humphrey. “It really depends on the fire.”

The Atlas fire in Napa County was spotted by chance by a passing California Highway Patrol airplane pilot. It also showed up minutes earlier on a weather satellite images. Within 15 minutes, the satellite shows the blaze exploding, doubling in size and more in intensity.


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