Guardians of Grass Valley; Air Attack firefighters keep Nevada County, and beyond, safe from wildfire (VIDEO/PHOTO GALLERY) | TheUnion.com

Guardians of Grass Valley; Air Attack firefighters keep Nevada County, and beyond, safe from wildfire (VIDEO/PHOTO GALLERY)

The pilots and firefighters at the Grass Valley Interagency Air Attack Base are a humble group of people.

With no fanfare, on any given day the handful of Grass Valley air attack and air tanker pilots can be the first to respond to new vegetation fire starts, drop thousands of gallons of fire retardant, direct hundreds of firefighters on the ground, and fly hundreds of miles all before the sun sets.

"(The) most task-saturated job in the fire service, is a single pilot air tanker," Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jake Sjolund said.

"What they have to do is not as simple as dropping ordinance," Sjolund said, referring to the task the S-2T air tankers used by Cal Fire were initially designed for.

Grass Valley Air Attack Base tankers 88 and 89 were both sister aircraft that came off of the USS Nimitz and were designed to sink submarines with a single on-board torpedo back in the 1960s.

Nowadays, with updated turbo prop engines, the 23 Cal Fire S-2T air tankers make tactical drops of fire retardant from air attack bases all over the state.

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"There are no cross hairs here," Sjolund said. "If you want retardant to be dropped. You have to describe the line to them. They have to figure out how to line up with that line from up above. They have to adjust the line for drift depending on the effects of wind and down drafts."

"All of their skill is 100 percent them. There is nothing in there that helps them drop retardant on time. It's all about how they understand the speed of the aircraft and the capabilities of their experiences in the past," Sjolund said.

Sjolund, who rides tandem in the overhead air attack 230 plane, circles above fires and coordinates air and ground firefighter response.

"Most of the time you don't ever see what they do, or hear what they do," Sjolund said of the air tankers. "We go in for one or two loads and go back home. You'll never know about it."

Cal Fire's goal is to keep new starts at 10 acres or less, which is accomplished 97.2 percent of the time from the Grass Valley Air Attack Base.

"The aircraft are the reason that fires stay small," Sjolund said. "It's only times when the Carr Fire happens, the Mendocino Complex, that you start highlighting aircraft."

Recently, Grass Valley pilots and firefighters have been busy fighting the North Fire, which started abruptly Monday afternoon in the Tahoe National Forest near Emigrant Gap.

Before the end of the day Monday, 30,000 gallons of retardant had been dropped on the North Fire from four different air tankers using the Grass Valley Air Attack Base.

By Tuesday afternoon, the North Fire was estimated at 500 acres with 10 percent containment.

Aging fleet

Cal Fire has the largest firefighting fleet in the world and continues to add aircraft, including seven Air Force C-130s as well as new Blackhawk helicopters that are slated to be online soon.

Many of the aircraft used by Cal Fire were designed in the 50's and 60's and have to be retrofitted for firefighting use.

The OV-10, which is now air attack 230, was first used in Vietnam in the late 1960s and designed for short, unimproved landing surfaces. It could deploy up to six people and was rated for 9 Gs (could handle forces up to nine times the force of gravity).

Before Cal Fire could use the aircraft, 4,400 pounds of armor needed to be removed.

The plane's speed and visibility from the cockpit make it ideal for coordinating firefighting efforts.

Cal Fire air fleet mechanics are some of the best in the business and were even sought out by the U.S. military when they decided to bring the OV-10s back into service in Syria a few years ago.

Occasionally issues do occur and mechanics at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base or at the McClellan base in Sacramento are called in, as was the case for air attack 230 last week.

"There's a cable bracket to let the landing gear down, and that cable broke," Sjolund said. "The plane wasn't in any harm because the pilot in the front has the ability to lower it also."

"So we just had to go down and get a new cable."

Grass Valley air tanker 89 was also temporarily out of commission Tuesday with a propeller governor issue.

When air attack is out of service, or during multiple area vegetation fires, the pilots of the air tankers have the ability to assume the responsibility of the eyes in the sky.

"We have initial attack carded pilots. Which means they don't need me to respond to a fire today," Sjolund said. "It's an added benefit for safety and coordination with the ground.

"These guys are trained to where they could take off from this base, respond to a fire, communicate with the ground, and still be able to drop and control a fire without supervision overhead. It's tougher for them, but they are able to perform it."

Retardant

During typical years, pilots at the Grass Valley Air Attack Base might respond to between 140 and 160 incidents sending around 300,000 to 350,000 gallons of retardant to vegetation fires.

During two of the past four years, the base has used over 500,000 gallons of retardant, which are considered big years for Grass Valley.

"This year I don't even think we're at the 200,000 range," Sjolund said last week. "So we're quite a bit under, which is a good thing, it means that we don't have local fires."

To contact Multimedia Reporter Elias Funez, email efunez@theunion.com, or call 530-477-4230.