It seems with every morning, drift smoke from area fires is a bit thicker and hangs out a bit longer, leaving residents to wonder where it’s coming from and who’s working to put it out.
NASA worldview satellite photos show the smoke has mostly originated from the Red Salmon Complex, a fire burning where the Trinity, Siskiyou and Humboldt county lines meet.
From Thursday, Aug. 6, to Monday, Aug. 10, the Red Salmon Complex grew from 4,284 acres at 7 percent containment to 7,031 acres at 30 percent containment.
The complex contains two fires, the Salmon and the Red fires. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Red fire behavior has been moderated over the past week as an inversion held in place.
“That inversion has weakened, increasing the possibility that communities will see an increased smoke column from the Red Fire,” the USDA report said. “The fire is 6,146 acres and 14 percent contained.
The smaller Salmon fire is 759 acres and 70 percent contained. Also contributing to smoke is the Jones Point Fire, burning near Hoopa. As of Monday morning, the fire was at 125 acres with no containment level given.
The area of the Red Salmon Complex is mostly inaccessible to conventional fire engines.
Over the mountains
Every day for over a week, helicopters of all sizes have departed from the Lonnie Pool Field airport in Weaverville, en route to the Red Salmon Complex.
As of last week, as many as eight helicopters were parked along the airport runway, along with support trucks, crews and communications operators.
Roger Caballero, a helicopter captain with Tahoe National Forest Helitack exclusive use helicopter, said his crew is there to backfill resources as local crews head out to new fire incidents and the rest were dedicated to the Red Salmon Complex.
Asked for the flight time and distance to the Red Salmon Complex, Caballero said the 42 air-miles can be covered in about 21 minutes. By comparison, it would take an hour to drive to Willow Creek and another 20 minutes to get within 15 miles of the fire to the west.
Caballero explained that most of the aircraft on the pads are “Exclusive Use Contract” helicopters.
“They’re under the exclusive use of the Forest Service for firefighting,” he said, “but they are all privately owned vendors that we contract with.”
Caballero explained that his aircraft, known as Chopper 514, carries a water bucket onboard, along with eight crewmembers and the equipment needed to make an initial attack on a fire in the forest.
“Our main purpose with this Bell 212 is to carry people, carry cargo and drop water,” he said.
However, with no “new” fires to fight, last week, his flight and supports crew found the time to clean up the airport’s base operator building and nearby grounds. Crewmembers could be found painting, cleaning and even replacing doors on the building last week.
Mark Thibideau, fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, explained that each pad on the airport typically has an aircraft, a mechanics truck, a refueling truck, maintenance technician, and crew.
The County Department of Transportation announced last week that the airport was closed to all but fire equipment. Caballero said that if the presence of the helicopters and crews would have generated a large impact on the community, the Forest Service would have brought in its own control tower in order to keep the airport open.
“But if you’re in a position to close it, that’s always better because it’s just safer overall for the in-and-out operations and logistics,” he said.
“Fire management isn’t just fighting fires,” Thibideau said, “There are a lot of specifics that go into making sure everything is set up for when a fire does break.” Caballero followed by saying pre-planning is necessary so that when a decision is made to respond to a fire, the legwork has already been done.
Caballero said if area fires spread or the number of fires increase, the Forest Service would use what it has available in the area first.
Also stationed at the Weaverville base are a two-rotor CH-47D Chinook, owned by Billings Flying Service. Crewmember Alan Dean said the bucket doesn’t have to be submerged to fill. An internal pump can fill the 2,000 gallon bucket in 30 seconds to a minute. Dean said the 31,000-pound Chinook can lift up to 26,000 pounds. He said that while most choppers have a support truck that drives to each location, the chinook carries its truck and a small crew inside when flying to a new mission.
One chopper which doesn’t need a bucket is the Sikorski S-64 Skycrane, which has a 2,000 gallon bucket already attached and a dangling snorkel to fill itself up.
Built in 1967, it was originally sold to the Alabama Guard, and a private company before being acquired by Helicopter Transport Services of Aurora, Ore.
“We just put it together from a bare-metal machine in 2018 and we finished it in 2019,” crewmembers explained. “Basically, it’s a brand new Skycrane, or as close as you’ll ever come to one.”
The Skycrane can be operated by two people, and by using its four water doors, can more accurately drop water along a fire line.
Thibideau noted that bases are spread out across the Shasta/Trinity National Forest which allow for the expansion of operations by transferring aircraft and personnel to other airports.
“We always adjust our resource capabilities based on the fire potential and fire needs,” he said, “and that’s to protect our firefighters and our communities.” Thibideau said the training, expertise and capabilities of air attack teams make them unique and essential, as they can adapt to situations to best support ground personnel and communities.
Caballero said that when a crew decides to use water from a creek, river or lake, several considerations have to be made.
“There are lots of things you don’t want to have happen,” he said. “You don’t want to transport invasive species. You want to be very careful that you have an agreement, especially if you are in the wilderness, for permission to dip out of certain areas. You’ll want to just completely avoid others just because they are in the wilderness.” Caballero said the crew will track how much water it takes from rivers at recorded coordinates, so resource biologists know where it came from.
“You don’t want to go from the rivers to the lakes,” he said, noting that crews don’t have time to clean and decontaminate a bucket between fills. “That’s the primary carrier of invasive species.” He noted that sometimes a crew can switch from an upstream location to a downstream one, but not the other way around.
“You can go high to low,” he said, “but you don’t want to go low to high in most cases.”
Ben Gotts, forest protection officer, said the Forest Service works in the off-season to minimalize large scale fires through logging and fuels management projects.
“We kinda cut the same lines in the forest as the hot-shot crews, as far as containment lines go and we use heavy equipment to aid in the process,” he said, noting that the process creates pre-barriers to fire as well as cleaning up the forest and reducing fuels. Gotts called fire “the janitor of the forest,” saying can use fire to decrease fire danger to the forest and mountain communities.
“What you need to do at your home, as far as minimalizing the fuels around your home, making sure things are kept low, clean and green and doing a lot of that yard maintenance, trimming up your trees and having appropriate defensible space, the more you do that pre-season, the better off you are going to be.” Gotts suggested community members help each other to keep forest properties clear, as they all have reduced fire danger for it. He also promoted the USFS ready, set, go, program to be better prepared to pack important items and evacuate before a fire reaches one’s home.
Give them a head start
Caballero added that residents should heed evacuation orders, even when precautionary, so firefighters can get in.
“In my experience that has been the biggest difference in time critical asset use,” he said. “If they’re out early, we can go right to work. If they are not, we spend a lot of time making sure the public is safe first, before we have the ability to take suppression action.”
Thibideau explained that while it’s exciting and interesting to be at the scene of a fire suppression operation, it can also hinder the effort.
“We understand the desire of the pubic to be engaged and maybe get that great photo or video of that helicopter doing bucket work or snorkeling water from a lake, we also encourage the public to keep your distance.”
Upon hearing the word “drone,” Caballero grimaced a bit.
“That’s a big one,” he said. “If you fly, we can’t.”
Thibideau explained that large helicopter rotor can tear branches from trees and send them flying, along with rocks and other debris.
As for recreating in the forest, Gotts recommended simply following posted rules and warnings, as well as just being sensible with fire.
“We want you to enjoy your public lands,” Gotts said. “Come on out but understand that we are in the heart of fire season.”
Thibideau said USFS personnel are very thankful for the outpourings of support from the county and local community members. He said the honks of passing motorists and pallets with thank you messages are appreciated and uplifting to locally stationed personnel.