After two days of fire, planes enter aerial attack in Sonoma and Napa counties

A Cal Fire helicopter drops water Wednesday to protect a structure along Bennett Valley Road near the intersection of Grange Road, near Santa Rosa on Oct. 11, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Clearer skies above besieged North Bay communities Wednesday opened a window of opportunity for a stepped-up air attack on multiple fires after two days of low smoke ceilings that limited firefighting flights and hampered efforts to stall blazes across Sonoma and neighboring counties.

The deployment included 37 helicopters and 36 planes — both tankers and spotter planes — assigned to a complex of fires located largely in Sonoma and Napa counties, as well as Lake and Mendocino counties, Cal Fire officials said.

In Lake and Napa counties, especially, residents have questioned the conspicuous dearth of tankers typically visible during wildfires of such magnitude, their telltale red retardant splashing down across flame fronts.

“That’s one of the prevailing questions I’ve gotten,” Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Jack Tibbetts said Wednesday about the first two days of the fires. “Today, I haven’t gotten it once, and that’s because we’re starting to see more.”

The planes aloft Wednesday included four standard 1,200-gallon air tankers launching from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, as well as high-volume supertankers loading fire retardant at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento.

They flew missions over uncontrolled fires threatening nearly 30,000 structures in Sonoma County alone, Cal Fire personnel said. The larger tankers can carry 3,000 gallons of heavy, red flame retardant.

Clearer conditions made for a reassuring buzz of activity at the Cal Fire Air Attack Base north of Santa Rosa, where Sonoma County airport manager Jon Stout reported “a steady stream of tankers” coming and going in rotation.

“We’re happy to be working, helping out,” said Cal Fire Engineer Jim Whitlock, air attack base manager. “It was frustrating when visibility made it difficult for us to fly. But now that we’re able to kind of get in and make a difference, I would say the mood is good.”

Assistant Cal Fire Chief Bret Gouvea, an incident commander for the Tubbs and Pocket fires in Sonoma County, said the cleared skies allowed targeted air drops to reinforce the southern boundaries of the area’s fires before shifting winds put renewed pressure on them overnight Wednesday and today.

An unprecedented firestorm swept through the region overnight Sunday and into Monday morning, destroying upwards of 3,000 structures and wiping out entire neighborhoods. The death toll in Sonoma County on Wednesday rose to 13.

The firefight early in the week was vexed by a sky filled with smoke following the firestorm that ripped through more than 50 square miles of rural and urban landscape in a matter of hours. So much smoke, ash and particulate matter billowed up that the Bay Area has marked consecutive days of its worst air quality on record. People in face masks have become a routine sight on city streets.

The thick haze is a problem for airborne tankers. Unlike helicopters, whose engineering allows them to adjust speed in poor visibility — stopping to hover or even reverse if obstacles loom ahead — fixed-wing aircraft can’t safely maneuver over rough terrain within their effective drop range without moderate visibility.

In Sonoma County, those poor flight conditions prevailed Monday and Tuesday, complicating efforts to launch tankers over burning areas.

Helicopters were deployed throughout Tuesday, making targeted water drops in the Tubbs fire area, the largest Sonoma County blaze, as well as other areas, Cal Fire representatives said.

Helicopters are the preferred tool in many scenarios in any case, Gouvea said.

When the wind shifted and visibility improved Tuesday afternoon, “we were able to get fixed-wing out until our cut off (time) last night, and then we’ve flown all day today,” Whitlock said Wednesday.

Tibbetts said some constituents alarmed by the absence of tankers wondered if priority was being given to Napa County and the 42,000-acre Atlas fire. The opposite suspicion was voiced by people in Napa about firefighting efforts in Sonoma, Tibbetts and others said.

“I guess they’re saying we’re getting all the supplies,” Tibbetts said. “I think it’s just a high level of anxiety. People are having frustrations, fear, anger, and there might be a little bit of finger-pointing going on.”

Gouvea sought to banish such notions. Sonoma County has been top firefighting priority, he said. “We have had aircraft at our fingertips the whole time,” he said.

On Wednesday, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Pete Quartarolo, who supervises the department’s helicopter unit hangared at the Sonoma County airport, described “a tremendous amount of activity out of this airport, compared to the past two days.”

“The wind and the weather is giving us a break,” Whitlock said, “and that allows us the visibility to operate at a higher capacity than earlier on in the incident.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or