Ask Lookout: What was that big helicopter going back and forth to the DeLaveaga fire recently?

A Cal Fire Fire Hawk in action helping contain a fire at DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Folks around downtown might have seen a new addition to Cal Fire’s air attack dipping into the San Lorenzo River near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to help fight a recent blaze. Here’s a closer look.

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If you were around the San Lorenzo River near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk two Fridays ago, you might have witnessed a memorable sight: a red and white helicopter hovering low over the surface of the river as it sucked up water through a dangling tube. It was a Sikorsky S70i Cal Fire Hawk, known colloquially as a Fire Hawk.

It’s a sight you are likely to see more often. That Fire Hawk is just one of the 12 new helicopters that Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting department, acquired in 2019 to replace aging equipment.

As we find ourselves in a perpetual fire season, and with high temperatures beating down on much of the state, let’s take a look at those firefighting copters and the larger strategy of how they are being used.

Overall, Cal Fire helicopters work out of 10 Helitack bases strategically placed around California. The plan: Position these bases so a helicopter can generally respond to an incident at any location in California within 20 minutes. While Santa Cruz County doesn’t have an air attack base, the nearest bases (see map below) of Alma (to the north) and Hollister (to the south) will be able to supply a helicopter to the county line within 6 minutes or less.

So, on the second anniversary of the start of the CZU Complex fire, and just as we let out a small sigh as the recent small fire at DeLaveaga Park was snuffed out, let’s take a look at those birds in the sky and how they do what they do.

Cal Fire, short for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, deploys a number of firefighting tools. Among them are its aircraft, and here those copters stand out.

Let’s take your questions and answer them and more. Where are the bases? How quickly can they respond? Ever heard of a Super Huey? How about a Bambi Bucket?

“Aircraft is key to the success for Cal Fire,” Jed Wilson, deputy chief of Cal Fire’s San Mateo-Santa Cruz (CZU) unit, told Lookout last week. “We want to keep 95% of all of our fires under 10 acres. That’s our objective. Without air attack, that would probably be difficult. Santa Cruz here locally, we have Hollister air attack base. We have Alma. And then we have Sonoma air attack base. Once they lift off, their goal is to slow the fire so the ground resources can back up the lines that they put in with the retardant and put the fire out.”

Since 1990, Cal Fire has used UH-1H Super Hueys, which were originally employed by the United States Army to transport troops and cargo. While the Super Hueys are still completely operational, their retirement is now in sight. And compared to the bigger, faster and more technically equipped Fire Hawks, their shortcomings are clear.

A Cal Fire Fire Hawk in action helping contain a fire at DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For starters, the Fire Hawk has a bigger carrying capacity than the Super Huey. At 1,000 gallons, the Fire Hawks’ tanks can carry almost three times as much water (or foam) as the Super Hueys’ fixed 360-gallon tanks. These tanks allow for a “controlled drop.” They allow a pilot to control the rate at which the water leaves the tank. A pilot might use a controlled drop when aiming for a long line of water to cover a larger area (perhaps to head off a fire) or to strategically place water in several spots.

Why, then, have some Super Hueys been retrofitted to carry only 324 gallons in a “Bambi Bucket,” a large container hung from a cable which a pilot will drag through a water body to fill? Some Super Hueys didn’t come with a fixed tank or their tanks have since become unoperational. In either case, engineers attach a Bambi Bucket to provide the aircraft with water-suppression capabilities.

“You can maybe have pinpoint accuracy, but the buckets always swing with the water,” Wilson said. “[It’s] a hazard, like if it gets caught on something. The new systems are just more efficient and safer.” The Bambi Bucket, once opened, generally falls in a single burst.

Why the term Bambi Bucket? Bambi Bucket is an industry term. The name’s origins are unclear, but it could be named after a sultry waitress, or it could simply be a joke.

Consider the Fire Hawks’s other advantages:

  • a faster cruising speed than the Super Huey (160 mph versus 126 mph);
  • longer endurance (2.5 hours vs 2 hours);
  • a larger body to carry a firefighting — or Helitack — crew that can be dropped at locations around a fire (12 people vs eight).

Then there’s this big difference: Fire Hawks are equipped with night flying capabilities, which can make all the difference.

“Temperatures drop and relative humidity increases [at night],” Wilson said, “so you have a more advantageous chance of catching a fire.” So far, only two of the seven Fire Hawks fly night operations. “It’s a large training component for those pilots. They have to get trained on night-vision certification, have so many flight hours. But the ultimate goal will be that our ships will be able to fly at night.”

A Cal Fire Fire Hawk in action helping contain a fire at DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Finally, the advantage of the Fire Hawk also comes down to design. “[The Fire Hawk] is designed to be multifaceted,” Wilson said. “The new Fire Hawk is designed to do fire suppression, to do search-and-rescue operations, and to do haul operations. And then we are working on phasing in night capabilities.”

On the other hand, the Super Hueys have required outfitting. “[The Super Huey] initially was made to fight fire,” Wilson said. “We retrofitted the Hueys for what we call short-haul operations, mostly rescue operations. The new ships have a hoist on them, so they’re built for that.”

You might see helicopters pulling water from the ocean, reservoir, rivers or other bodies of water. Generally, a pilot will find the closest one, though exceptions are made for protected species or habitats. Is there a difference between using salt water and fresh water in fire suppression? No. As much as we’d like to hear of salt water’s special fire-retardant properties, salinity makes no difference.

Of the nine Cal Fire bases, seven host Fire Hawks, including the nearby Hollister base, while the Alma base hosts a Super Huey. Within the next year or so, five more Fire Hawks already in Cal Fire’s hands will become operational.

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