Aerial Firefighting & Northern California Fires

Aerial Firefighting & Northern California Fires

The recent Northern California fires were able to reach full containment, thanks to California’s aerial firefighting program. Forty-three people died in the fires which destroyed an estimated 8700 structures in Santa Rosa, Calistoga and beyond. The Santa Rosa Fire Lawsuit Attorneys of Nadrich & Cohen are representing local residents in claims against PG&E for their damages and losses.


The CAL FIRE Air Program is the largest in the world. The fleet includes more than 50 rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, which are located throughout the state at nine helicopter bases and 13 airbases. CAL FIRE’s air tanker program began in the 1950s. Helicopters began to be used for fire control in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the department upgraded its F model aircraft to UH-1H helicopters. CAL FIRE began to invest in air tactical aircraft in 1974. That was when the department acquired 20 Cessna O-2 helicopters that had been used in Vietnam.  Today, many of the air tankers used to fight California wildfires are privately-owned. However, the U.S. Marines and National Guard also own air tankers. Today, the fleet includes 23 aircraft.

Santa Rosa Fires

How Do Air Tankers Work?

Air tankers, also called water bombers, are very fast aircraft, with top speeds of some exceeding 400 mph. They help contain fires by dumping fire retardant on the fires to slow their growth. This fire retardant is known as slurry, which contains mostly water, preservatives, and a rust inhibitor. It also has a special fertilizer mixed in to protect trees and vegetation from fire. Borate salt was primarily used in the past but was deemed toxic to the animals and soil. Today, ammonium sulfate or ammonium polyphosphate is used in the slurry, often with some type of thickening agent.

This powdery substance is dyed red so that it can be easily seen. Air tankers can hold thousands of gallons of slurry – some even more than 10,000 gallons.  While it’s recommended that pets do not ingest slurry, it’s not harmful to the environment. In fact, farmers often ask fire departments to dump any leftover slurry on their fields, since it contains fertilizer.  When the slurry hits the ground, bulldozers and other tractors are often on the ground to create a fire break. Therefore, effective aerial firefighting involves a team effort, especially in areas with dry, rugged terrain.

Costs of Aerial Firefighting

Aerial firefighting is not cheap. In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service spent close to $300 million on equipment. To run a helicopter for a week costs a whopping $368,645.  Slurry costs $2 a gallon, and an air tanker often uses 12,000 gallons at a time. Use of a tanker costs $6,000 an hour. In 2014 alone, 9 million gallons of slurry was used to put out fires, at a cost of $18 million.  Is aerial firefighting worth the cost? The Forest Service has done experiments showing that slurry is twice as effective as water alone. Slurry is known to prevent the spread of fire as well as decrease its intensity.

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