LOS ANGELES — The flames erupted just after sunrise on a high canyon wall, far beyond the reach of earthbound firefighters.
As powerful winds sent embers rocketing through the Sierra Nevada foothills, and closer to the California towns of Magalia, Concow and Paradise, fire crews radioed anxiously for aircraft.
“Any news on air attack?” demanded one commander. “Let’s get stuff up that we can get up.”
But it would take nearly two hours for the first water-dropping helicopter to arrive, and roughly six hours for the first air tankers to drop retardant on the fire, because of dangerously strong winds.
Now, in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and caused up to $13 billion in damage, some are calling Cal Fire’s use of air tankers “costly and increasingly ineffective.”
They insist that fixed-wing air tankers are too vulnerable to the blinding smoke and high winds of extreme fire conditions.
But the unprecedented death and destruction that wildfires have brought to California the last two years have demonstrated the sharp limitations aircraft have when battling extreme fire behavior.
Officials say the department’s aerial fleet can use retardant to slow the movement of a flame front, or use water drops to douse spot fires and clear escape routes. However, they say firefighting aircraft are no match for the types of wind-driven fire storms that have killed more than 130 people and taken out 20,000 homes since October 2017.
The shortcomings of aircraft battling a massive wind-driven wildfire were painfully apparent in the early hours of the Camp Fire.
Pilot Dave Kelly was the first pilot to fly over the Camp Fire. “It was just, getting the crap beat out of you, basically,” Kelly said of flying amid heavy wind gusts.
He first flew northeast to the origin point of the fire — at the mouth of a Feather River canyon where he estimated winds were blasting at nearly 60 mph — and knew any retardant drop to cut off its flank was pointless.
He banked his airplane to the right and made a loop. He then headed to the fire’s western edge but found it was too turbulent to drop retardant. He then banked left and made a full loop until he was headed east, toward the fire’s other flank.
Down in front of him, barely visible in the smoke, lay rows of unburned homes where he could drop pink retardant, its chemical mixture making anything it coats tougher to burn.
When tankers drop retardant, their goal is to be as slow and low as possible, Kelly said. So Kelly put the flaps all the way down, lowered the throttle and attempted his approach toward Paradise. But instead of descending toward his target, his plane climbed 1,000 feet.
The winds that rolled over the Sierra Nevada ridges and up the canyon walls were lifting Kelly’s 30,000-pound tanker when it should’ve dropped like a stone. Jostled continuously in the air, Kelly was forced to abandon the mission. Had he tried to approach it in the opposite direction, the winds rolling over the hills could’ve shoved his plane down into the ground without giving him time to react.
Kelly returned to the air base at 8:29 a.m., without dropping any retardant on the fire. The air attack supervisor orbiting above announced that all fixed-wing aircraft were grounded until further notice because of the conditions. Only helicopters, which can function in higher winds, managed to operate during the fire and dropped water on evacuation routes to help residents escape.
Fires like the one that destroyed Paradise in November and Santa Rosa in 2017 don’t stop growing until the wind dies down, said Frank Carroll, a retired 31-year firefighting veteran with the U.S. Forest Service.
“There’s no combination of firefighters on the planet that could’ve altered the outcome,” Carroll said.
In a report that harshly criticized the state’s wildfire suppression strategy, Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, and other experts urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to convene a special task force on protecting homes from wildfire and warned that plans to expand Cal Fire’s fleet of air tankers “would be a poor investment of taxpayer dollars.”
The report, published by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, said the state needs instead to focus its energy and funding on preparing communities to live in fire-prone environments. Among other criticisms, it says the department has undermined its ability to combat fires by refusing to schedule aircraft during early morning hours — when studies suggest water and retardant drops are most effective — and focusing instead on the hottest period of the day.
The reason for starting most pilot shifts at 10 a.m. is a compromise between pilot safety and firefighting capability, officials say. Studies show that retardant is most effective in slowing fire growth in sparse vegetation on flat land in cool conditions, not so much at the peak of the afternoon under the blazing sun.