Base at Sonoma County airport plays big role in attack on Rocky Fire

The aerial fight against the Rocky fire has been mostly orchestrated some 65 miles away, at Cal Fire’s air attack base on the northern edge of Sonoma County airport.|

One of the sweetest sounds during a pitched battle with a raging wildfire is the roar of an airplane swooping in low to deliver a payload of orange-red retardant, the gooey substance splattering on contact and snuffing out flames threatening lives or homes.

Two massive blazes in the North Bay in the past three weeks have again brought home the crucial role aerial bombers play in combating conflagrations across drought-stricken California. Behind the scenes and often far from the front lines, these sky raids on an unforgiving enemy are planned and executed with military precision - and with no margin for error.

The aerial campaign for the Rocky fire in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties has been mostly orchestrated some 65 miles away, at Cal Fire’s air attack base on the northern edge of the Charles M. Schulz-?Sonoma County Airport. Here, a small team of firefighters, dispatchers, mechanics and pilots on contract with the state have run a tightly choreographed operation to keep supplies of retardant flowing to the planes that drop them from the skies.

Four Grumman S-2 air tankers that last saw duty as carrier-based submarine hunters in the 1960s have been part of the operation, flying in and out of the airport on the busiest days earlier this week at roughly 20-minute intervals. Two of the planes are stationed at the Sonoma County Airport. The other two were on loan from Grass Valley. A four-engine DC-7 - built in the 1950s - also was part of the rotation, its tanks holding up to 3,000 gallons of retardant.

Crews here battle fatigue, nerves, time away from families, equipment malfunctions and constantly shifting priorities and demands to provide air support where it’s needed. The Sonoma base’s response area includes 4,000 square miles, encompassing all or part of eight counties.

The focus in recent weeks has been the Wragg fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa County and the Rocky fire, which started a week ago Wednesday and has mushroomed into a nearly 70,000-acre behemoth, the largest of nearly two dozen wildfires burning in the state.

Drought conditions in California and the accumulation of tinder-dry fuels have combined this summer to create what veteran air tanker pilot Bob Valette, 74, called “one of the worst years I’ve ever seen.”

And it’s only August.

The Sonoma Air Attack Base is one of 13 around the state ready to respond when fires break out. The call can come anytime, sending firefighting personnel racing to get on top of the situation before it explodes out of control.

From sunup to sundown during major blazes, the Sonoma County base hums with activity. Crews ready the retardant, which is brought to the airport in powder form from Southern California, mixed with water and stored in large tanks. The finished product is pumped into the planes, which pull up like cars at a gas station.

The retardant is comprised of salt, water, a thickening agent, red coloring and phosphates. The fertilizer-like mixture releases water vapor when it hits flames.

That dramatic moment, captured so often in media accounts of blazes, can feel a world away from the base.

Aside from a brief and unusual rain spell on Tuesday, Sonoma County crews operated this week under cloudless skies. Commercial airplanes taxiing past the fleet of air tankers further fueled a sense of disconnect between the routine of everyday life and the base’s urgent mission - dousing flames threatening nearly 7,000 structures, and safeguarding hundreds of the 3,500 fire personnel working the blaze.

The base itself is understated, comprising a two-story building housing an array of support services, including a dispatch center, bedrooms and a kitchen. Nine people normally are assigned to the base, including three pilots.

Voices of dispatchers crackling over loudspeakers this week brought the firefight home, as did the weary looks on many of the faces. Base personnel said this is the busiest fire season in about five years, and it’s apparent it is wearing on them.

“Everybody’s really tired. We just got done with the Wragg fire and everyone headed to Lake County,” said Cal Fire Capt. Jake Serrano.

Serrano, who lives in Forestville, said he was only seeing his family at night when his shift was over. He and all base personnel were on standby even when they are off duty, and those who were scheduled to have days off were called back.

By Wednesday, things had settled down, with air support for the Rocky fire temporarily suspended because of conditions on the ground and to allow crews to work the blaze using bulldozers and other equipment. But that can change quickly, requiring the Sonoma air crew to be on constant alert.

During fire season, air attack crews around the state are constantly shuffled in response to blazes or to cover bases where resources have been stretched thin. Ukiah also has a Cal Fire air attack base.

But no amount of planning can completely overcome the unexpected challenges, which range from equipment problems, to ever-changing weather conditions and new fires.

Valette, whose career as an air tanker pilot spans four decades, was frustrated Monday because mechanical problems with the Grumman S-2 he was supposed to fly kept him grounded. He looked on as mechanic Ray Bohnenstiehl worked on the plane’s fuel boost pump.

“There’s fires are out there. I want to be out there fighting them,” said Valette, who lives in Geyserville.

Serrano, who was supposed to be directing resources from above the fire, also was stuck at base due to problems with a plane.

The plane’s pilot, Dean Talley, has been seasonally employed in firefighting since 1978.

He said the job “is not as bad as it’s perceived, but to be honest, it’s probably worse than you would admit.” His goal, he said, “is to make it boring.”

Monday’s forced downtime notwithstanding, coordinating an air assault on a major wildfire is rarely a perfunctory routine. Just about the time Valette had settled into a chair in the air-conditioned control tower, word came over dispatch of another fire reported near the?Oregon border.

Valette stood on a chair to plot the blaze’s reported coordinates on a wall map.

“When it quits being fun, you gotta bail out,” he said, flashing a grin.

You can reach Staff Writer?Derek Moore at 521-5336 or?derek. On Twitter ?@deadlinederek.

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