Fighting Fire from Above

Longer fire seasons, bigger blazes, and urban encroachment into the wilderness pose new challenges for those charged with fighting flames from the sky.

A Cal Fire airplane drops retardant on a large hilltop home that caught fire during a 2014 wildfire in San Marcos.
A Cal Fire airplane drops retardant on a large hilltop home that caught fire during a 2014 wildfire in San Marcos.

In the early hours of November 8, 2018, David Kelly saw the smoke column. A veteran air tanker pilot with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, Kelly was driving to the department’s Chico air base, about 95 miles north of Sacramento. In the dawn light, he could just make out the feathery wisp of a fire starting to the east. He called Shem Hawkins, his battalion chief at Chico and the air tactical group supervisor on duty that day, and both men sped to the base.

The forecast for that day in November included high winds, so Kelly and Hawkins were up earlier than usual for their shift, expecting some fire activity. At the Chico base, though, the air was strangely calm. Kelly quickly got his plane ready and lifted off, heading 19 miles east to the forested canyons above the mountain town of Paradise, where he’d seen the smoke. It was 7:45 in the morning, and he was the first into the fire.

As soon as Kelly got up in the air, he knew it was trouble. In just 20 minutes, the fire had boiled up angrily, producing a different kind of smoke column: one with a sheared-off anvil shape that was pinned low to the ground by howling 70-mile-an-hour winds. The billowing clouds quickly filled up the entirety of Kelly’s windshield.

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Hawkins was right behind. As air tactical group supervisor, he would oversee and coordinate the firefighting efforts from the air. From the back of a spotter plane flown by pilot Stephanie Kudar, he got his first good look from above. The fire was already burning 1,000 acres and growing at an exponential rate, fueled by the heavily wooded terrain and funneled downslope by the wind. He immediately radioed for additional aircraft, calling in six tankers and six helicopters from nearby bases. Then he radioed Kelly and cleared him to drop the familiar red slurry of retardant around a communications tower, already threatened by the fire, that was critical to local emergency medical services and the county sheriff.

A photo of the Camp Fire’s anvil-shaped smoke plume, taken from a Cal Fire spotter plane on the morning of November 8, 2018.
A photo of the Camp Fire’s anvil-shaped smoke plume, taken from a Cal Fire spotter plane on the morning of November 8, 2018.

By this time, Kelly, flying lower and closer to the fire, was hitting nasty turbulence. As he rounded the heel of the blaze to attempt a drop, the wind, eddying up fiercely off the ridgeline, blew him sideways toward the communications tower he was supposed to protect. A few hundred feet above the ground, knocked around in the sky by gusts so powerful that his head was ringing, he began to wonder: How much more can this plane take?

Then Hawkins saw something that made his stomach plummet: fires breaking out along the west branch of the Feather River—the only thing separating the flaming ridge from Paradise, a community of 26,000 people. Evacuations had already been ordered for the town, but Hawkins radioed to upgrade the urgency level. It was 8 a.m., and the fire had arrived at the town’s doorstep. He sent Kelly back to base and dispatched the helicopters—as smaller, more nimble aircraft, they could get low under the smoke layer and drop water in concentrated, precise bursts to protect key escape routes.

Hawkins, 45, had worked as a firefighter in the area for much of his life, and he knew Paradise well—he’d grown up there. He’d first met his wife when both were middle schoolers at Paradise Intermediate; his wife’s parents lived on the east side of town, squarely in the path of the fire. He worried about his elderly in-laws, but shook the thoughts out of his mind. He had a job to do. Somewhere under the impenetrably thick smoke layer, his hometown was going up in flames.

By the end of the day, what would come to be known as the Camp Fire had grown to 20 miles long. It would continue to burn for more than two weeks before being fully contained. Little remained of Paradise. Almost 19,000 buildings—90 percent of the town—burned to the ground, and 86 people died, making it the deadliest wildfire in California history, and the most destructive.

Cal Fire air tanker pilot David Kelly at McClellan Airfield.
Cal Fire air tanker pilot David Kelly at McClellan Airfield.


What a California firefighter faces on the job can increasingly be described as a litany of superlatives. Of the 20 most destructive fires in state history, 14 happened in the past 12 years. Some only briefly held one grim record or another before being surpassed by a subsequent conflagration. Last year was the worst fire year on record; in addition to the Camp Fire, there was the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest. All told, there were more than 8,000 fires in 2018, burning more than 1.8 million acres.

With more than 50 aircraft, Cal Fire has the biggest aerial firefighting fleet in the world. In the summer months, it’s not unusual to get 50 fires in a day across the state. If you’re surprised by this statistic, as I was, consider that we don’t hear about the incidents that turn out well. A fire starts; it gets put out; it doesn’t make the national news. But climate change has been having its way with this landscape, with hotter, drier conditions fueling bigger and more frequent blazes that are turning California’s fire season into a year-round one.

The megafire, defined as a blaze that consumes 100,000 acres or more, is becoming more and more routine. From the air, it’s easy to see the push of human development into wildland areas where historically there were few people. The latter-day consequence is that these fires now have the potential to be far more deadly to people and destructive to property. Over the course of three months this winter and spring, I set out to see how the pilots of Cal Fire are adapting in this age of the megafire.

During my first visit to Sacramento’s McClellan Airfield, the headquarters for Cal Fire’s aviation management operations, rain is gusting down in sheets amid a three-day “atmospheric river”—the kind of wet, wintry weather that fills up reservoirs and is a relief to Dennis Brown.

Or rather, it’s the kind of rainy day that used to be a relief. “It’s a relief for now—but we also know all this moisture statewide is going to grow more grass, so at some point we’re going to have to pay the piper,” Brown, the senior chief of the aviation program at Cal Fire, says wryly. “You just can’t please firemen.” During persistent drought years, that vegetation bloom can turn the West into a tinderbox come April and May—or, these days, as early as March.

Cal Fire’s goal is to have aircraft to any fire in California within 20 minutes. The state is divided into 13 air tanker bases and 10 helicopter bases, with two joint locations. Fifty years ago, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, which has access to contracted aircraft but none of its own, made a plan to share assets; the two collaborate closely when a big fire breaks out, and many longtime firefighting pilots will have worked for both agencies by the end of their careers.

An affable man with a tidy gray mustache and a subtly authoritative air, Brown spent nearly four decades with the forest service as a firefighter, an air tactical supervisor, and an aviation safety officer before moving over to Cal Fire, where he has been for almost 10 years. Firefighting pilots inhabit a niche even within aviation. They are trusted to fly heavy aircraft a scant 150 feet off the ground—to make decisions quickly, around people, over houses, in order to save both. They communicate visually and verbally, with far less reliance on instruments than airline pilots. Variables in the field are incredibly fluid, and these pilots need to respond in kind. What firefighting pilots do, Brown says, is “as close to pure airplane flying as you can get.”

Inside one of the Cal Fire hangars at McClellan.
Inside one of the Cal Fire hangars at McClellan.

Cal Fire pilots are divided by aircraft: fixed-wing versus helicopter. For all intents and purposes, fixed-wing means airplane: the S2-T air tankers that can travel more than 200 miles an hour and carry 1,200 gallons of fire retardant—these are the workhorses of Cal Fire aviation—and the smaller, sleeker OV-10 spotter planes that carry the air tactical supervisors. The supervisors sit behind the pilot and are constantly talking—to tanker pilots, to helicopter pilots, to fire incident commanders on the ground—pointing out hazards, water sources, operation priorities. OV-10s can also act as lead planes, helping tankers find their targets.

Helicopter pilots fly the UH-1Hs—or Hueys, in pilot parlance. Their primary role is to support and protect crews on the ground. They can fly forward, backward, side to side. They can scoop water and dump it with precision near people in danger. They can hold a position, and they can fly low. Even when there aren’t any fires, helicopter pilots are kept busy with rescue operations: medical evacuations of hikers, climbers, and others in remote locations; swift-water rescues from rivers or flooded roadways.

Where Cal Fire pilots can fly is constrained by wind and visibility. If they can’t see, they can’t fly. All of the fleet’s current aircraft are single-pilot—meaning that flying them is a one-person operation. They often carry additional firefighting personnel, but being of Vietnam vintage, they are excellent at maximizing efficiency and have been, for decades, pretty ideal for aerial firefighting in California.

Sheet metal smiths Judi Janelle (left) and Kelly Greco fabricating sheet metal storage boxes for installation in the S2-T air tankers.
Sheet metal smiths Judi Janelle (left) and Kelly Greco fabricating sheet metal storage boxes for installation in the S2-T air tankers.

But times have changed. To keep up with increasing and intensifying fire activity, Cal Fire’s fleet is getting a long-awaited upgrade. Over the next several years, it will receive seven C-130 tankers, which require three people to operate and can carry 4,000 gallons of retardant, nearly quadruple the capacity of the existing S2-T tankers. It will also acquire 12 Black Hawk helicopters, some of which will be outfitted with night-flying capabilities. The first Black Hawk is scheduled to arrive this summer.

In the hangars, where mechanics are performing maintenance work on the fleet, Brown insists that I climb into an S2-T, an OV-10, a Huey; he wants me to have the experience of sitting inside these different aircraft, to understand from a sensory perspective what makes them well suited for the purposes they serve. The S2-T tanker has two engines, so it’s extra reliable, and powerful, too. The OV-10 is narrow but with bubble windows, so you can see a lot if you stick your head out to the side. The Hueys are what Brown calls “all-terrain vehicles”—they can quickly move into a fire to drop water or retardant, or even deliver a nine-person fire crew.

“All of these are very capable, safe aircraft, and our pilots love them. Nobody is anxious to see them go away,” Brown tells me. “But as they age, it’s harder and harder to get parts. So the new aircraft will supplement the existing fleet with critical added capacity.”

Cal Fire battalion chief Shem Hawkins in the back of a spotter plane at McClellan Airfield.
Cal Fire battalion chief Shem Hawkins in the back of a spotter plane at McClellan Airfield.


To Shem Hawkins, Paradise was the perfect storm. All the variables of the wildfire—a bone-dry forest chock-full of fuel, gale-force winds that shot hot embers miles across a canyon, conditions that made it impossible for air tankers to drop retardant to slow the fire’s spread, a topography that funneled flames straight into populated areas with narrow, winding roads and few exit routes—came together in a way that strained the limits of Cal Fire’s aerial firefighting capabilities.

A bottleneck on Skyway, the major artery out of Paradise, made the evacuations particularly harrowing. Falling power lines and burning cars blocked the roadway, which narrowed to two lanes in some places. “All we could do at that point was get the rotor wings down there to drop water and clear everyone out as fast as possible,” Hawkins tells me recently. He is soft-spoken and unfailingly polite; even in recalling one of the worst catastrophes he’s ever faced, he radiates calm clearheadedness. “Because what I could see was that no one was going to be able to put aerial containment on that fire on that morning. Not with that wind. The only thing we could do was protect the evacuation corridors.”

Fifteen minutes after Hawkins first saw the fire enter Paradise, it had already jumped five and a half miles over to the west side of town. “That floored me,” he says. “What that told me was that evacuation corridors on both sides of Paradise were in jeopardy really early on.”

The helicopter pilots were operating in intense, hazardous conditions; the smoke was so thick along Skyway that visibility was severely compromised. When a helicopter releases its payload, it can be up to three tons of water coming down in one spot. Hawkins kept pilots cycling through with water drops, pausing only to replenish their stores by dipping into a nearby reservoir. They all prayed that there were no people immediately underneath them.

A chimney is all that remains of a home in Paradise.
A chimney is all that remains of a home in Paradise.

It wasn’t until early afternoon that the wind slowed enough to allow Kelly and the other tanker pilots to go back in. Fire retardant loses effectiveness once the wind reaches 35 miles per hour, because of dispersal. That day in Paradise, the winds were double that speed. And “even on a normal day, retardant doesn’t put fires out,” Hawkins notes. “It decreases the intensity and slows [the fire] down, to help ground firefighters contain its spread. From the air, we try to create the environment so that they can get in and use their tools. Ultimately, it comes down to the firefighter on the ground to put the fire out.” But Hawkins also knows that the general public is comforted by the sight of billowing clouds of retardant being dumped on fires from the air. It sends the signal that firefighters are putting the fire out—even if it’s not quite accurate.

The new priority was to keep the fire from blowing back behind its heel and igniting other towns to the north. By that evening, Cal Fire’s pilots had dropped more than 60,000 gallons of retardant. Over the next few weeks, an unprecedented amount of smoke settled in the valley, and toxic air pollution ballooned out over the larger San Francisco Bay Area, closing down schools and driving millions of people indoors.

The Camp Fire made painfully visible what much of the public had not yet really comprehended: Massive wildfires were the “new abnormal,” as then-governor Jerry Brown put it. They had the ability to affect many millions of people outside their immediate vicinity; their reach extended into urban areas; they were not going away.

Paradise residents Wendy Cobb and Marc Darling search for their two missing cats on a message board at the town’s Ponderosa Elementary School.
Paradise residents Wendy Cobb and Marc Darling search for their two missing cats on a message board at the town’s Ponderosa Elementary School.


Cal Fire is more acutely aware than anyone of the challenges it’s facing. One part of the aviation program’s response is the upgrade in equipment that’s already underway; another is the implementation of an aggressive hiring and training process to correspond with that increased capacity.

The average age of Cal Fire’s pilots is somewhere in the late 40s to early 50s; many have military or emergency medical service backgrounds. Helicopter pilots are year-round state employees. Tanker pilots are hired on a contract basis through DynCorp, a private company that handles all training and maintenance. Historically, tanker pilots have been seasonal employees. They would spend approximately six months of the year flying for Cal Fire—typically with a six-days-on, one-day-off schedule—and then return home for the winter, usually to work other flight jobs. But the punishing, never-ending fire season of recent years is forcing some changes.

It takes one to two years for a trainee to become a fully licensed tanker pilot, and Cal Fire has experienced a pilot shortage over the past few years, owing to retirements and the inherent dangers of the job. The attrition rate for trainees has also been high (around 60 percent); you may love to fly, but by the end of training you may come to realize that flying in acutely stressful fire conditions is not for you. To cover the losses, Cal Fire has increased the number of trainees it takes on each year, from two to eight.

At the end of March, I come back to McClellan for spring training. All of the 80 or so pilots, even the experienced ones, undergo a mandatory refresher every year; the final weeks of the six-week session are dedicated to new trainees. To coordinate the increased traffic of pilots rotating in to fly simulated operations—which can add up to hundreds of operations a day—a temporary FAA-approved flight control tower is set up midfield.

For the best vantage point from which to observe this air ballet, Brown, the aviation chief, invites me to visit the control tower. It’s where I meet Dawn Freeman, a smooth-voiced retired FAA flight controller who now works for the private company that set up the tower. “The pilots go off to practice water drops and other drills for an hour, and then they come back to practice low passes and touch-and-gos off the runway,” she explains. Behind her rectangular glasses, her blue-green eyes scan the horizon through the panoramic windows, looking for planes coming in. She picks up the radio.

“Tanker eight-zero, runway one-six clear,” she says in that calm, yogic voice. “You are cleared for an option approach.” I could listen to Freeman all day, and tell her so. She returns the radio to the desk with a chuckle, then picks up a pair of binoculars. We watch as a tanker, tail number 80, executes a low pass on the runway in front of us, before lifting off again and reentering the pattern for another maneuver.

The pilot flying tanker 80, it turns out, is David Kelly, the first firefighter to arrive on the scene the morning of the Camp Fire; during spring training, he works as an instructor. After he wraps up the morning’s flight, we meet outside Brown’s office to chat about how flight school is going.

Kelly, a stocky 43-year-old with graying stubble and an easy laugh, greets me with an iron grip. He wears a black cap embroidered with the words “Chico Air Attack Base.” “We’re training differently, that’s for sure,” he says. “Cal Fire’s motto has always been to keep 95 percent of fires contained to 10 acres or less. Most of our training deals with fires that size, and that’s where our aircraft really shines. It only carries about a thousand gallons of retardant. When you start getting into these big fires? We’re outside of our normal work scope now.”

He thinks back to the morning of Paradise, when he flew around for an hour before returning to base without having been able to drop anything. He could hear the calls on the radio, and it was heartbreaking: “I wish we could have done more.” Though high, unpredictable winds are always an issue, the new tankers will have greater range and the ability to drop larger, longer lines of retardant to control the perimeter of a fire—“more bang for the buck,” as Kelly puts it. The training program for these planes is already being planned, ahead of their arrival; Brown has made sure of it.

“We’ll have our training done before the fleet shows up, so we’re ready on day one, no questions asked,” Kelly says. “Our pilots already know the firefighting part of the job. It’s our existing toolbox applied to bigger, more frequent fires.”

Senior chief of aviation Dennis Brown at McClellan Airfield.
Senior chief of aviation Dennis Brown at McClellan Airfield.


I’m standing with Shem Hawkins near the intersection of Merrill Road and Shay Lane, where the Camp Fire first entered Paradise. It was a nice neighborhood with pretty landscaping, he says: lots of low-lying plants and shrubs protecting each house’s privacy from the neighbors, lovely back decks facing a densely forested gulch and the west branch of the Feather River. “I’m sure it was beautiful to wake up here and look out at that view,” he says, pointing down the hillside at some manzanita. “But all of that is fuel.” There isn’t much here anymore to telegraph that idyllic past: a partial railing, a twist of rusty metal that could have been a gutter, a rectangle of brickwork tracing the front of what was once a house.

As Hawkins and I make our way through Paradise on a radiantly sunny spring morning, following the path of the fire as it roared across town, what strikes me is the absoluteness of the destruction. Entire streets are leveled to their foundations. In many places, the fire burned so hot that buildings essentially vaporized. Often, there aren’t enough clues left for me to even guess what a given site was. A playground, a church, maybe a restaurant. Driving around with Hawkins, though, is like traveling with a ghost map of the place superimposed on the streets.

His elementary school. His wife’s parents’ house. His childhood home, with a porch he helped his dad build. As we pass by, these are places that only he can see.

I ask him how he kept his cool that day, flying above the fire, even as he saw it coming toward people he loved. The radio crackles in the Cal Fire truck, and he pauses, considering his answer while another part of his brain parses the incoming stream of information.

“It’s like sports—you have to be in the zone,” he says. “One of the things we do early in training is have firefighters do a simple math problem. Then, in the middle of a stressful exercise, I’ll give them that problem again. I’ll time them. They understand how their thinking is compromised.” Subsequent practice, the constant repetition, he adds, helps everyone maintain the necessary focus on the job. The day the fire broke out, Hawkins’s in-laws—his wife’s parents, her sister, and her sister’s children—fled to his own house in nearby Chico while he fought the fire. Because the fire burned for weeks, he didn’t have time to process his feelings right away—not even when he drove his father-in-law back into Paradise to see the smoldering ruins of his home.


Given Hawkins’s singular air-meets-ground perspective, I want to know what he thinks Cal Fire will take away from a disaster as devastating as this one, and what the organization’s priorities will be going forward. “One of my big concerns right now is changing weather patterns that we haven’t seen in the past compounded by the exponential growth of population in California,” he says. Nearly one in three homes in California is now in what’s called the “wildland-urban interface”—in or near dense vegetation, much of it at risk for catastrophic wildfire. “A lot of other people have come up to see what happened in Paradise, to look at how to design evacuation corridors more effectively. But they can never be designed well enough to evacuate everyone at once.”

He takes me to the northern end of Skyway, near where his sister-in-law’s house once stood. We retrace her route southwest out of town and end up slowing down, just as she did, at a two-lane logjam between Clark and Wagstaff Roads. You can make out black scorch marks on the asphalt where burning cars stalled; you can imagine the excruciating traffic jams that formed as the flames closed in. He asks me where I live; Berkeley, I say.

“In Berkeley, what happens every day on I-80? A backup. Every single day. Compound that with an emergency in which everyone is trying to get out. So what do you do with them while they’re evacuating? That was the question we had that day,” Hawkins says. “How we educate the population is going to be key going forward.”

He has ideas. Cal Fire’s mandate is not only to suppress fires after they’ve started but also to help prevent them, through ongoing research and education, forest and fuels management, and local government and community planning. What if you didn’t have to evacuate right away? What about exploring the possibility of designing temporary shelters in places that have good clearance and defensible space, so you could stay safe while waiting for the initial danger to pass? We drive by a wide field that seems to have kept fire at bay and protected nearby structures. How well did newer homes survive, with their fireproof roofs, windows, and decks, with their mesh-screened vents to keep embers out? In a more recently built part of town near where Hawkins grew up, many houses made it through the fire, despite flames burning just as hot in that neighborhood. In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, multiple studies are being done on the survivability of newer home construction and the effectiveness of existing fire code standards.

He wonders, too, counterintuitively, about the effectiveness of Cal Fire. Maybe, just maybe, its firefighters have been so good at their job over the years that there’s a flip side: we the public have been lulled into a complacency about fire vulnerability that we are only beginning to wake up from.

As a state, as a region, as the West, we have entered an era in which wildfires have ceased to be truly wild. The pilots of Cal Fire can’t save us. They can only treat the symptoms, not the causes of fire. But what they see from the air can help us understand more clearly what we have been blind to all along. We have put ourselves in places that will only burn bigger and hotter as the planet warms. The forever fire season is now.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of Why We Swim, a Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times bestseller that also was named a best book of the season by the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Outside, Discover, Amazon, Buzzfeed, and more.
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