Saturday's airshow in Santa Rosa drew thousands of people to gaze skyward at dizzying aerobatics and warbirds from a bygone era.

But the most noteworthy performance at the two-day Wings Over Wine Country was an unscripted appearance by Cal Fire pilots.

Within view of the crowd at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, they swooped down in large tankers, dropping red retardant on a series of small brush fires that were sparked by errant flares.

Many said the real-life demonstration of aerial firefighting prowess upstaged the actual show. They whooped and applauded as a tanker pilot dropped a load.

"This is phenomenal," said Paul Derkos of Santa Rosa, a volunteer with the sponsoring Pacific Coast Air Museum. "They tried to get Cal Fire to perform and couldn't. Now here they are, putting on a great show."

Three fires along the runway and a fourth in a grove of oak trees north of the airport delayed scheduled performances by about an hour. Firefighters estimated the total acreage at about 65.

The show resumed by mid-afternoon with flights by World War II fighter planes.

Gone from this year's lineup were flyovers from active military aircraft. The federal budget sequester has grounded planes from Beale and March Air Force bases, such as the U-2 spy plane and the massive C-17 Globemaster transport.

The Marine Corps' vertical takeoff Harriers, which performed last year, also had to bow out.

"They would love to come but funding cuts have put that on hold," said Wayne Seamans, airshow director.

Plane buffs didn't seem to mind.

They watched sleek, aerobatic planes do barrel rolls and hammerhead turns, trailing smoke, and waited in line for the chance to sit in the cockpits of decommissioned fighters and bombers.

Landon Culley, 4, of Santa Rosa watched the action in the sky from a perch on his father's shoulders. As a chrome trainer did a loop de loop, he shouted, "Awesome!"

"I'm a little disappointed they didn't have the big jets," said his father, Ryan Culley. "But the kids are enjoying climbing on the planes. It's a good atmosphere."

The fires appeared to break out during a performance by professional stunt pilot Julie Clark. Falling embers from a pyrotechnic flare as the suspected cause.

Fire trucks raced across the tarmac and aerial tankers flew in.

A crowd gathered at the north end of the viewing area, cheering them on.

"Yeah!" yelled a woman in a red tank top and floppy hat as a plane swung low and dropped retardant. "Go Cal Fire!"