After poor visibility kept aircraft grounded earlier in the week, helicopters were taking off and landing frequently Thursday afternoon from the Carmel Valley Vintage Airport to fight the Soberanes Fire.
Kenny Dossey, a battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority who’s working the efforts to contain the Soberanes Fire, said the airport has been used before to battle fires on the Central Coast. Crews set up an air traffic trailer as well as 13 helipads on the site. The airport closed in 2002, though Santa Claus is known to drop by during the Carmel Valley’s annual Santa Fly-In.
“This has been nice (being able to use the airport) because the fire’s not far from here as the crow flies,” Dossey said.
Robert Fish, a Cal Fire spokesman, said helicopters are a versatile firefighting tool.
“Aerial support is always important to ground operations,” he said. “We have had challenges on this particular fire with the inversion creating very smoky conditions, at times preventing the aircraft from being able to fly.”
According to Curtis Gagnon, a co-pilot with PJ Helicopters who was contracted out to help fight the fire, the fog can cause difficulty for pilots as well.
“That’s another concern when we go out: We have to be able to make sure we can come back,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll get a little window of opportunity and it might be fine right here, but next thing you know everywhere else is fogged in.”
Gagnon, who works with pilot Brent Keeler, said he’s been fighting the fire since Sunday. He said crews were grounded Monday and Tuesday and they weren’t able to fly until about noon on Wednesday because of the fog. He said communication is key to their efforts and to keeping safe.
“Sometimes it gets tricky and you have traffic going both ways, but they’re doing a good job of setting good paths,” Gagnon said of the helicopter coordinator directing traffic. “We kind of almost have roads in the sky that we can follow to make sure we’re safe.”
In addition to water drops, helicopters are also performing reconnaissance work and deliveries of equipment, supplies and fuel. Thursday afternoon a crew from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services ran a mission to deliver a radio repeater to firefighters inside the fire line.
Dossey said crews often use a technique called sling loading where they use rope and netting to carry cargo beneath the helicopter and people on the ground disconnect the cargo from the helicopter.
“When the fire’s over with we’ll sling load out the trash, all the empty bottles, tools, stuff the guys don’t necessarily take on their way out,” he said.
Helicopters can also drop off firefighters onto the perimeter of the fire.
“They can shuttle crews into the actual interior of the fire and drop them off,” Fish said. “(Helicopters can) limit the time from the edge of the fire to the area where a fire line needs to be constructed to fight the fire.”
Fish compared the cooperation of ground and air forces in firefighting to that of a military operation.
“Ground forces have to reinforce what the air mission has done, otherwise you’ll lose ground,” he said.
A total of 14 helicopters coming from the state and federal forces in addition to contractors are fighting the fire along with six air tankers. Mostly smaller and medium-sized helicopters are flying out of Carmel Valley and firefighting forces are also using Monterey Regional Airport.
Dossey said the owner of the Carmel Valley airport has been in contact with the owner of the land and he was very supportive. Neighbors stopped by on Thursday to talk with pilots and firefighters while watching helicopters launch and land.
“They’ve all been very, very positive,” Dossey said. “As a matter of fact, they’ve been bringing water and snacks and the guys are absolutely loving it because sometimes you get tired of eating sack lunches over and over.
Tommy Wright can be reached at 831-726-4375.