LOS GATOS – A few firefighters with the best vantage of wildfire season in the Santa Cruz Mountains this summer have been battling fires from the air, dropping hundreds of gallons of water from a Cal Fire helicopter and guiding ground crews to remote areas.
Although the rural areas in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties have been spared from a large wildfire in recent months, members of Cal Fire’s Alma Helitack Base said the worst may be yet to come. Brush and grass continue to dry out as the region’s drought wears on.
“Most of the fires start in August or September, so this summer’s just starting for us,” said Cal Fire Capt. Eric Gomberg.
Firefighters such as Gomberg at the Alma station near Lexington Reservoir often respond to wildfires in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but they cover from Monterey to Mendocino County and Interstate 5 to the ocean. The crew also rescues stranded beachcombers at places such as Panther Beach on the North Coast and mangled mountain bikers in the Soquel Demonstration State Forest.
This week, while training on the dusty banks of a very low Lexington Reservoir, members of the Helitack crew took a moment to explain how they work and how they’ve compensated for shallow ponds and other water sources they use to fill the helicopter’s tank.
“We’re having trouble with low water supply all throughout the state,” said Cal Fire Capt. Matt Sterck, who works at the Alma station.
“And we’re getting fire behavior at the end of July that we’d normally get in September or October.”
No matter how small a wildfire initially appears, firefighters said they hit as swiftly and aggressively as possible.
How it works
When the crew is dispatched, a pilot and a captain sit in the cockpit and six firefighters pile on to bench seats in the back of the Alma Helitack’s 1969 Bell UH-1H “Huey” helicopter, similar to those used in the Vietnam War.
Wearing helmets with integrated two-way radios, they take off from the Alma helicopter pad without water in the tank in part because the helicopter must balance the weight of fuel and the firefighters on board.
With a rough location of a wildfire, the firefighters in the helicopter talk to firefighters in engines on the ground via radios, guiding each other to the fire.
The pilot usually finds a spot to drop the six firefighters on the ground — whether it be in tight canyons as the chopper hovers about 5 feet above the ground or a clearing in the woods. Finding a spot to land can be a challenge, pilots said.
Firefighters on the ground can hook up a hose from a fire engine to the helicopter’s 370-gallon tank and fill it with water.
Alternatively, the helicopter crew can leave the crew and find a pond, swimming pool or other water source, sucking up water via a “snorkel” hose. That water is dropped onto the fire. One, two or three doors of the tank can be opened depending on how much water they want to drop.
The whole process of dropping off a crew and finding water typically happens at the same time a ground crew of firefighters is hitting the fire with water. A plane or planes — typically from Cal Fire Hollister Air Attack Base — also drop retardant on the fire simultaneously.
Cal Fire’s goal is to contain 95 percent of wildfires to 10 acres or less.
“The mantra is: Hit it hard and keep it small,” said Cal Fire Capt. Dave Manson.
Cal Fire firefighters armed with hoses watch as the Alma Station helicopter comes in for a dusty landing at the Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos on
Manson, a 45-year-old from Santa Cruz, said he started as a seasonal firefighter after he finished high school.
His father was a San Jose firefighter, “And I just wanted to be a fireman, you know?” Manson said.
Now a part of the Alma Helitack crew, he said it’s become routine to be dispatched to a wildfire on the helicopter.
Yet it still gets his heart pumping when he sees wildfires from the air. Some of his fellow firefighters shrugged about it during a training exercise Thursday. He called them out.
“C’mon, when you see that smoke? It gets you going,” Manson said.
On July 24, firefighters used planes, the Alma Helitack helicopter and ground crews to douse two quarter-acre wildfires north of Boulder Creek near highways 9 and 236. It took about 50 minutes to stop forward progress on the two fires, according to Cal Fire. While the helicopter crew was in the air, it also spotted a third hot spot near China Grade Road and helped stamp that out as well. No one was injured and no buildings burned.
Two days later in South San Jose, the Alma Helitack crew helped battle a 15-acre brush fire near Almaden Quicksilver County Park.
“It’s been a little slower in our area than in some years. But sometimes it’s three to five (calls) a day,” said Cal Fire Capt. Sean Ketchum, who also works at Alma Helitack.
The helitack base and its helicopter pad are just downhill from Cal Fire’s Alma Fire Station 13, which is a normal fire engine unit on a frontage road of Highway 17 near Bear Creek Road. The two stations are spartan, with a dirt and rock parking lot, worn wooden benches, a clothes washer and dryer and living areas.
The helicopter crew said its attacks have become a bit more difficult this year because it’s been harder to find water.
Some of the ponds in the Santa Cruz Mountains and surrounding area are used to “snorkel” water in to the helicopter. Many of those ponds are now shallow because the drought, and the “snorkel” suction hose can pick up dirt and small rocks.
That can lead to a brown, dirty water in the helicopter’s tank, which might not be as effective on a wildfire as pure water.
To compensate for that lack of water, leaders at Cal Fire’s Alma station this year added portable water tanks that can be filled near wildfires instead of ponds. Firefighters on the ground find water from fire engines, water tanks or other sources, and fill those 1,500 gallon yellow tanks — which resemble a large, collapsible hot tub. They can be filled.
Thursday, firefighters practiced hovering their helicopter about 15 feet over a portable tank — also known as a buoy walled tank — and sucking up water with a red snorkel hose.
Anyone standing anywhere near the chopper’s booming blade got blasted by dust, or “peppered,” as firefighters call it. The dirt gets into eyes, ears, noses and clothing. Firefighters usually wear ski goggles so they can see something besides dust near the chopper’s rotor blade.
“You’re usually sweaty, so it’s sticking to you — all the dirt and bugs on your back,” said Manson.
Cal Fire Capt. Dan Clark, a 54-year-old who also works at Alma Helitack, piloted that helicopter.
Originally from Los Angeles County, Clark started flying planes U.S. Army in 1979 and helicopters about 1984. He said his military work was similar to firefighting.
“We’re actually at war with the fire,” Clark said.
Clark said the crew usually flies only during daylight hours because wires and other obstacles aren’t visible at night. Hitting an electrical wire could be catastrophic if it wrapped around the rotor blade.
Clark said he lives in Washington state, working for Cal Fire seven days on and seven days off. Typically, firefighters on the helicopter crew work in 72-hour shifts.
He called the Huey helicopter model “stone-cold” reliable, and they’re maintained better by Cal Fire than they were by the Army.
“Even the firefighters can’t break them. And they can break just about anything,” Clark quipped.
Tips for rural homeowners
Clean: Create a 30-foot ‘lean, clean and green’ area around the home and 100 feet of defensible space around it.
Mark: Clear vegetation around address markers and use contrasting colors for visibility.
Map: Have wildfire escape routes planned.
Mow: Don’t mow grass or use other equipment that could create sparks after 10 a.m.
Trim: Clip unnecessary wires that could hinder a helicopter crew.
Visit: Log on to www.readyforwildfire.org for more information.