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Aircraft Key, But Often Misunderstood Part Of Battles Against Large Brush Fires Like Thomas Blaze

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(Photo by Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
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A Skytrain helicopter haelps firefighters on the ground deal with hot spots in the foothills above Montecito

They are firefighters who have been battling the Thomas fire not from the ground, but from the air. Helicopters and air tankers are a key part of efforts to stop brush fires.

But, the use of aircraft is often misunderstood by the public, with people often questioning why huge air tankers aren’t targeting flames.  Aerial firefighting officials say the focus is actually in stopping the spread of the fire, and helping ground crews establish fire lines.

During the early stages of the Thomas fire, intense wind and dense smoke made the use of aircraft unsafe, and ineffective. That’s especially true for air tankers. They are used to cover ridgetops and other areas with fire retardant where they can slow, or help prevent the spread of a fire. But, because of their size, they can’t get down into canyons, or areas where wind is an issue, or visibility is limited by smoke.

Jim Harris is Deputy Chief of Fire and Aviation Management for the Los Padres National Forest. Harris says while helicopters can often get into canyons and other areas big air tankers can’t reach, they also have limitations.

While air tankers couldn’t be used on Santa Barbara’s front country during Saturday’s firestorm, because of high wind, Harris says the planes still made an important contribution to the battle on the flip side of the mountains, helping to create fire lines.

One of the latest additions to the aerial attack on the Thomas Fire are two giant “super scooper” aircraft which can land on lakes, or even the ocean to pick up water without even stopping, and then take off again to attack a fire.

Harris says while aircraft can be impressive as they swoop in to attack a fire, they alone can’t stop a fire. He says it’s the sweat of firefighters on the ground which will ultimately contain a fire.   He says when a fire is raging, people think aircraft are the solution. Harris says they aren’t by themselves, but that they can be a key part of the answer.