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By Andrew Wedgebury
Airport key to state’s firefighting effort
Picture a huge 3-D chessboard over a forest fire, with helicopters on one level, airtankers on another, and tactical support aircraft on the upper. Throw in the possibility of a drone clogging up the airspace and you get an idea of the battalion chief’s job in the support aircraft as he orchestrates the fight against the fire.

Battalion Chief Jake Sjolund has been stationed at Cal Fire’s air attack base at the Nevada County Airpark for about four years. The Grass Valley Air Attack Base was established in 1958, and aircraft now based at the site includes a OV-10 Bronco two-seater and two S-2T airtankers. There are 12 air attack (fixed wing) bases and nine helicopter bases located throughout the state. Aircraft can reach most fires within 20 minutes.

“Grass Valley is unique in that we have a Forest Service component here also,” said Sjolund. “On the Cal Fire side we have three pilots on a day—one for my plane and one for each tanker and then myself. And then on the base there’s an additional five personnel.”

Conditions have changed extensively for the base since CDF started using small airtankers that were primarily spray airplanes converted for use as firefighters. “In 1958 they were mixing retardant by hand, not like we do now,” he said.” And there was a real smorgasbord of aircraft, which are long gone—biplanes, TBMs, float planes.”

 Today’s retardant is a slurry mix of water, a salt/fertilizer compound, a thickening agent and a coloring agent. The Grass Valley base always has 50,000 gallons on hand, with another 74,000 gallons in dry powder form if needed. The base mixes its own retardant and pumps about 500,000 gallons per year.

 “If I was to drop this on your yard, you would like us for it because your lawn would get very green.” Sjolund said.

 The base office at the airport is two rooms with a few desks, computers, a large monitor showing fire activity and a porch with chairs. The staff is friendly and the public can drop by to view airport activity. But the calm atmosphere is deceiving. According to Sjolund, when a call comes in, they can be in the air in three minutes. “That would be the OV-10, which I would be in, plus the S-2T tanker.”

The OV-10 two-seater that Sjolund rides in has been a workhorse for Cal Fire, as well as for the Navy and Marines. The Vietnam-era aircraft were refurbished, relieved of around 4,000 pounds of armaments and put into CDF service. “They are hands down the best air attack planes for visibility,” Sjolund said.

Adding to the complexity of the job, airtankers only turn to the left, because the pilot sits on that side where he views the drops. The helicopters can go in any direction, so need instruction on flight paths. The OV-10’s will turn to the right and utilize a right-hand orbit.

The possibility of an errant drone is another worry for firefighters, as their presence can possibly mean damaging or bringing down an aircraft such as a single-pilot tanker on a low-level run.

“There was a believed drone strike on an OV-10 a couple of weeks ago, up under where the nose the wheel would go. They were in flight, heard a loud bang and put the aircraft on the ground,” said Sjolund. The reality is in a three-mile orbit above a fire we’re like bees in there. I’ve had up to 17 aircraft working in there going up and down. The worst-case scenario is a drone coming through the window and incapacitating our pilot.”

The fire season is June 15 through Oct. 15 at the air base, and according to Sjolund, he has had an average number of calls this season.

“Looking at call volume, amount of gallons delivered, number of fires, we’re still sitting in numbers that we generally see. Coming out of last winter, however, it was surprising to see the fuels as receptive to burn as they were at the end of June, considering the amount of rainfall we had,” he said.
Photo by Andrew Wedgebury
The S-2T being refueled.