As a longtime resident of Topanga’s Fernwood neighborhood, I am reminded daily that my family and I are blessed to live in such a beautiful place. We bought our house in 1988 knowing that we were moving to a community that is threatened by wildfires. The Chumash lived here and learned to survive the threat by moving their meager possessions and re-building their living places if they happened to be destroyed. It is a far different story today as our houses must be defended from the destructive flames of wildfires that have visited Topanga more than a dozen times since 1926.
The wind driven flames of the Topanga/Malibu wildfire of 1993 burned inexorably down Saddle Peak behind our house on Fernwood Pacific Drive. My family and I watched with concern as the flames came with 150 feet of our house. Firefighters with the Alturas Fire Department, who had camped out in our neighbor’s driveway for three days, told us they could not protect us. My wife Daniela watered our roof with a garden hose as large embers swirled about in the acrid smoke, which billowed over our property.
We hurriedly placed family photos and financial records in the back seat of our car, along with my son’s miniature Angora rabbit, Santa Rosa, in her cage. I remember the feeling of helplessness now as if it was yesterday. David Gottlieb, a Topanga neighbor, invited us to take refuge in his house a few miles away.
With the start of this year’s wildfire season only weeks away, my sense of concern is greater with the knowledge that the total seasonal rainfall for California as reported by Bill Patzert, climatologist with JPL/NASA, will be between the sixth and tenth lowest rainfall totals since records started being kept in 1879. Snowpack totals in the Sierras are also much lower than normal this year.
Every year Los Angeles County firefighters from Topanga’s Fire Station 69 inspect Topanga properties to make certain we have cleared flammable vegetation and provided defensible space against wildfire. This is the essential partnership with Los Angeles County Fire Department we must uphold.
Santa Monica residents remember the Malibu/Topanga wildfire in 1993 as they watched flames and huge smoke clouds from Palisades Park. Property losses from the wildfire totaled more than $400 million (the total property losses would be far higher in 2012 dollars). It is important to remember that all taxpayers share the cost of property losses from wildfires through emergency financial assistance provided by FEMA.
This year the U.S. Forest Service has only 11 Large Air Tankers (LATs) available to fight wildfires in the U.S. In 2002 44 LATs were under contract. That same year a Lockheed C-130 A tanker lost its wings in flight (a video of the crash can be seen on YouTube) and a Lockheed P2V also crashed. The entire LAT fleet was grounded for six months.
A Blue Ribbon Commission permitted two models of LATs to return to firefighting – the Lockheed P2Vs and the Lockheed P-3s. Last year, a month before the start of California’s wildfire season, the Forest Service’s Fire & Aviation Management canceled the contract for AERO UNION’s P-3s citing safety concerns. The Sacramento-based company’s seven P-3 sit on the tarmac at McClellan Air Field near CAL FIRE Aviation’s fleet of firefighting aircraft.
The loss of AERO UNION’s P-3s will effect the ability of the Forest Service’s aerial firefighting response in Southern California this wildfire season. The 3,000 gallon capacity P-3s are known as “workhorse” air tankers. Should CAL FIRE request Mutual Air assistance this year these aircraft will not be available to assist.
The U.S. Forest Service is relying on a fleet of aging Lockheed P2Vs and heavy lift helicopters to provide for major aerial firefighting capability. Recently the P2V fleet was grounded when a tear was discovered in the left spar of a P2V’s lift wing. Fortunately no other problems were found after inspection of other P2Vs in the fleet. Should the grounding of the P2V fleet have occurred when multiple wildfires were burning, aerial firefighting capability in the U.S. could be severely impacted.
The U.S. Forest Service needs to modernize its Aerial Firefighting fleet with a mix of firefighting aircraft. That should include single engine air tankers (SEATS), water scooping aircraft such as the Beriev Be-200, a 3000 gallon multi-purpose air tanker, the Bombardier CL-415, a purpose-built 1620 gallon capacity aircraft.
Depending upon the funding available several models of the Lockheed C-130 should be evaluated: a C-130-H with a 5000 gallon capacity, and the new C-130 XJ. There is a real need for Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) such as Tanker 910, a 11,600 gallon capacity aircraft based in Victorville. With over 420 missions on 70 wildfires in two foreign countries and six states, Tanker 910 and its sister ship Tanker 911 are powerful “tools in the toolbox” of aerial firefighting. Securing funding for effective purpose-built firefighting aircraft must be a priority for the U.S.
Tony Morris founded the non-profit Wildfire Research Network (WRN) in 2004. WRN is concerned with developing new strategies to fight wildfires and the critical need for purpose-built firefighting aircraft in the U.S. For more information, visit www.wildfireresearch.org.