Firefighters Hone Their Air-Attack Chops at Redding Base

High above the smoke and flames of each north state wildfire, a supervisor circles in a Vietnam War-era spotter plane, serving as an airborne air traffic controller and directing the aerial attack as planes and helicopters battle the blaze with water and fire retardant.

James Flynn and Andre Evans were two of the 18 wildland firefighters who recently visited the Redding Air Attack Base for an intensive two-week course that will eventually land them in spotter planes as air attack supervisors.

Andre Evans, left, and James Flynn.

Evans, a fire captain with the Santa Ynez Flight Crew on the Los Padres National Forest, said the chance to combine his two loves—firefighting and aviation—was his motivation to enroll in the California Aerial Supervision Academy.

“To bring ground tactics into the aviation world is pretty special,” Evans said. Special, certainly, but far from easy. “It’s constantly challenging and growing. There’s so much to learn.”

Flynn, a CalFire firefighter at the Rohnerville Air Attack Base in Fortuna, said the instruction dished out at the academy “is like drinking from a firehose. There’s a vast amount of information you’re trying to cram into your brain.”

Firefighters begin with ground school at the former McClellan Air Force base in Sacramento before shifting to Redding where they spend more time in the classroom, studying ground tactics and poring over maps of previous fires. They also supervise a variety of firefighting scenario mockups using a sand table to practice directing equipment and personnel.

Toward the end of the academy, they take to the air and supervise the action on simulated fires on rolling ranchland near Whitmore, about 25 miles east of Redding. Each academy member joins a pilot in an OV-10 Bronco and directs the attack aircraft, including retardant bombers, helicopters and smokejumpers, in extinguishing a fire represented by smoke bombs.

A smoke bomb is smothered during training.

“Students are learning how to become air traffic controllers over the fire,” explained CalFire Capt. Beau Tipton, a training officer at the Redding Air Attack Base. “They dictate when to drop (retardant), how much to drop and provide intel for ground troops.”

As he spoke, Redding Air Attack Base aircraft, including the new Sikorsky S701 helicopter (a commercial version of the famed Blackhawk known as the Firehawk) and the workhorse Grumman S-2T airtanker, swooped across the blue sky and unloaded their payloads of water in precise patterns.

Upon completion of the academy, Tipton said the prospective supervisors will spend approximately two years on actual fires, working alongside seasoned supervisors, before being signed off as qualified air tactical group supervisors.

Fighting fire from the air is often one of the most hazardous activities in wildland firefighting, Tipton noted, and for maximum safety, new supervisors of air tactical operations must be trained in air traffic control, communications, equipment, aerial firefighting tactics and aerial observation.

The interagency Redding Air Attack Base was established in the late 1960s at the northern end of the Redding Regional Airport. It is operated by the U.S. Forest Service and hosts CalFire resources. It supports firefighters battling hundreds of fires in a vast response area spreading from Red Bluff to the Oregon border and from Hayfork to Lassen Peak.

Fire figures

While the 2020 wildfire season set a California record with a staggering 4.4 million acres burned (helped largely by the 1.1 million acres consumed by the August Fire), the 2021 season was record-breaking for the Redding Air Attack Base. That year, Redding-based aircraft dropped 3 million gallons of retardant. The previous record was 2.8 million gallons in 2018, with 659,662 gallons dropped on the Carr Fire alone.

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Jon Lewis

Jon Lewis is a freelance writer living in Redding. He has more than 30 years experience writing for newspapers and magazines. Contact him at jonpaullewis@gmail.com.

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