Three years ago, the town of Paradise was destroyed by the Camp Fire, which was later designated the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history.
I saw the devastation first-hand because I served as the National Guard dual-status commander at the Camp Fire and was responsible for coordinating the military’s involvement during the crisis.
After the fire, leaders on the local, state and federal level were reassessing the historic wildfire and lessons learned for next time, promising to never let history repeat itself. The Legislature has approved funding for wildfire mitigation and prevention efforts and tried to hire additional staff, but as I look at the current state of our region on fire — has anything truly changed since then?
California recorded its worst fire season in 2020, with about 4.2 million estimated acres burned. The Tamarack Fire, which erupted over the July 4th weekend, was merely “monitored” during the first 12 days until the fire exploded out of control, consuming more than 70,000 acres in its wake. In August, Greenville was brought to the ground by the Dixie Fire and not a month later, the Caldor Fire, which is still burning as I write this, started as a brush fire and threatened one of California’s most scenic locations — Lake Tahoe.
These recent fires are evidence that what we’re doing isn’t working, and we need to look for new approaches and new technologies that can help firefighters on the ground.
As I wrote back in February before this year’s fire season began, “Our country has the potential to lead the industry with innovative technologies and forward-thinking strategies, but only if we invest in and support these new systems that can save more lives and homes. I suggest we take note of the perils of 2020 and convert our learnings into quick legislative action to protect our first responders, civilians and critical infrastructure in the future.”
My sentiment remains the same — we must explore other resources and firefighting technologies that we have at our disposal so we can protect our communities and save lives.
In particular, Containerized Aerial Firefighting Systems, or CAFFS, can fight wildfires from the air dropping water and retardant out of cargo planes. This method provides ground crews with dependable cover from the air and delivers a rapid surge of retardant over a live fire. This technology can be used at high altitudes so it can dump water where other aircrafts cannot. Having the capability to fight fires at night would’ve been instrumental in fighting these wildfires.
A great example of Containerized Aerial Firefighting Systems was developed by a Fresno-based company, which has an aerial firefighting system that can accurately drop more than 32,000 gallons of retardant or water onto a fire using the C-130 airplanes that we already have at our disposal.
While the fires were burning this summer, countries such as Israel and Greece were using Containerized Aerial Firefighting Systems technology to fight wildfires. It can be used on any standard cargo plane transforming any aircraft with a rear ramp into a firefighting aircraft. Imagine if there were 20 or more additional aircraft that were dropping 4,000 gallons or retardant every 20 to 30 minutes.
Our need for additional air resources is paramount especially after our aerial capabilities have been cut short. Earlier this year the world’s largest firefighting air tanker was grounded due to concerns over revenue. Not to mention, at the start of this year’s fire season the U.S. Forest Service tried to activate the 16 privately-owned large air tankers but could only find five.
Our lives, homes and the environment are at stake, and it is vital to take action now to prepare for future wildfire seasons. We can’t afford to look back in another three years and realize we could’ve done something different.
Dana Hessheimer is a retired Brigadier General and National Guard dual-status commander during the Camp Fire. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.