Firefighters fight massive fire at Hemet from the air at night

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Activity at Hemet-Ryan Airport was buzzing Saturday morning as Cal Fire pilots got ready for another long day battling the deadly Fairview fire a few miles away.

Pilots trained heavy metal in an open-air gym near the tarmac, swinging kettlebells and pounding push-ups in the unseasonably cool weather brought at night by the remnants of Tropical Storm Kay.

As the Alabama-Texas football game played on a big screen at one end of the low dining room, cooks prepared long trays of bacon-wrapped meatloaf for lunch while putting away the last of the morning’s sausage and eggs.

Chris Renner, a wildfire pilot for Cal Fire’s Aviation Management Unit, poses with a helicopter at Hemet-Ryan Airport near the Fairview fire on Saturday.

(Connor Sheets/Los Angeles Times)

It was a rare moment of pause for Chris Renner, a wildfire pilot for the Aviation Management Unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The 40-year-old spent Wednesday and Thursday nights in the cockpit of a “Cal Hawk” — a Cal Fire-modified Blackhawk helicopter — that picked up 1,000 gallons of water at a time from Diamond Valley Lake and released it from about 50 feet above the water. Fairview brand.

“The first night there was a very intense fire activity – 50 foot fire garlands,” he said. “We tried to hit the hot spots, slow it down as much as possible. We didn’t want the fire to burn out over the ground crew containment lines.”

Such water droplets are a key function of any aerial firefighting operation. But the Fairview fire is one of the first handfuls where Cal Fire has deployed specially trained pilots like Renner to fly night vision goggles at night, joining other fire departments, such as Los Angeles, who have been fighting fires from the air for years. dark.

The approach provides water- and fire-retardant droplets, while pilots monitor fires from above, providing vital information about fire movements and activity to firefighters on the ground.

A fire and smoke tornado swirls at the head of the Fairview fire

A fire and smoke tornado swirls at the head of the Fairview fire along Batista Road near Hemet on Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

“The ability to fly at night has really enhanced the ability of firefighters working night shifts,” said Marc Peebles, a public information officer for the US Forest Service. “So just like you see during the day, with all the spectacular water and the retarding drops, they can do that at night.”

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The primary role of aircraft is not to put out fires, but to support ground personnel, said Chance Inwood, director of air operations for Cal Fire Team 6.

Still, the night drives played a key role in suppressing the Fairview fire and coordinating resources, such as when they helped burn down a cluster of houses and other buildings near Hemet, Renner said.

“At one of the houses there were some shrubs in the garden. And we – between us and other planes – put about four drops of water on their property,” he said. “But we couldn’t put it out, so we got hold of a nearby engine by radio and they went over there and were able to put it out. .”

Peebles, who was working from a trailer on Saturday morning at the Fairview fire incident command, said flying in the dark with night vision goggles is “very, very dangerous” and only done by specially trained pilots. Still, airdrops have been an important tool in the comprehensive approach to firefighting.

“This is a complete suppression of the fire. That means we’re going after it with everything we’ve got. We’ll be here for days, maybe weeks,” he said.

A house is covered with fire retardant.

A home was covered with fire retardant material in the fire zone of the Fairview fire near Hemet on Friday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Cal Fire spokesman Rob Roseen said the fire had spread to about 28,300 acres Saturday morning and was contained about 40%. Two people were killed and at least one person was taken to hospital with injuries, he said, adding that the injured victim is expected to survive. Thirteen buildings were destroyed, and another four were damaged, he said.

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He said the fire service expects the fire to be completely extinguished by Monday. Nearly 1,200 firefighters have been deployed to the area.

John Schaures, an air tanker pilot for a contractor named Amentum who supplies pilots and mechanics to Cal Fire, said he was working shifts from 7:45 a.m. to dark at the height of the Fairview fire.

He said he put 60 drops over the massive fire in Riverside County in two days. That was possible, Schaures said, because the airport, which is home to a Cal Fire base, “just happens to be close to the Fairview fire.”

“The fire is only six miles away, so I can get about three to four drops of 1,000 gallons of retardant per hour,” he said. “It’s exciting to be up there and it’s a challenge. Every drop is different.”

Schaures pulled out a photo on his cell phone that a fellow pilot had taken of an OV-10 Bronco plane high above the fire-affected area. The undergrowth at Hemet is streaked bright red by retarder, which has been painted so pilots can see where it has already fallen.

The pilot pointed to a pair of unidentifiable structures parallel to a stretch of empty road that he had helped protect from the ravages of the fire.

“I was especially interested in these houses,” he said. “We were working on structure protection, so I was mainly concerned about that.”

Justin McGough, head of Cal Fire’s daily operations division, said firefighters used planes for about an hour and a half to get the flames under control “before the high winds stopped that.”

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The highest winds were recorded in the northeast portion of the containment zone, in the Oak Cliff and White Post Turn area, McGough said. The southern and southwestern quadrants were also “extremely tested for wind,” resulting in spot fires outside the containment zone, necessitating the rescue of several residents, he said.

Although conditions had improved, McGough said officials wouldn’t let the rainfall and increased relative humidity drag us along “appease us into complacency to think this fire is out.”

“We’re not out of the woods here yet,” he said. “We have a lot of open lines on the south side of this fire and some very heavy fuels.”

He encouraged people in areas under evacuation orders to leave immediately and seek safety.

Cal Fire maintains several aircraft at Hemet-Ryan Airport for deployment across the region. But when a major fire like the Fairview fire breaks out, the agency and contractors fly tankers, planes, and helicopters.

Firefighting aircraft at airport.

A Cal Fire plane stands on the tarmac of Hemet-Ryan Airport, where the agency has an airbase.

(Connor Sheets/Los Angeles Times)

The aircraft will remain in place until firefighters determine they are no longer needed. Inwood has determined that the night flights are no longer necessary and has released the pilots who conducted them. So Racer went back to Sacramento on Saturday.

Peebles said the rain kept air operations grounded overnight, but its effect in suppressing the fire has been invaluable as it has “changed fire behavior quite a bit” and has contributed to the rapid increase in containment since Friday.

“The weather has been our friend,” he said. “The rain came in as a slower, consistent rain, as opposed to a deluge. … Had it been a deluge, we would have been concerned about flash flooding and debris flows in the fire area that would have posed a hazard to firefighters. Fortunately that has not come to pass.”

But Cal Fire meteorologist Matt Mehle said risks remain. He said Saturday he expected wind gusts of 20 to 30 miles per hour, lower temperatures and higher humidity.

“Concerns for firefighters on the line will be focused on scattered showers and possible thunderstorms,” ​​he said, raising the risk of flooding. He added that the area is under a flood watch until midnight. “Fortunately the winds will be much less today; they will still be from the east and southeast.”