By Daniel Grigore
It is twilight, and the cows are coming home. Except in this case, the “cows” are aircrafts weighing thousands of pounds with spinning propellers on their backs. As the sun sets on one side of the sky, casting its fiery glow across angry smoke clouds on the other, the helicopters and their crews return to the landing strip at the small airport in Angwin. They pass over the resident cows in their green pastures who continue grazing, unperturbed.
As the pilots exit the crafts, the ground crews enter, refilling fuel tanks, cleaning and tying down propellers, overseeing the general preparations for another day in the sky.
And truly, these helicopters do remain in the sky all day during a fire, with one mechanic stating that 50 back-and-forth trips to a water source is not uncommon.
A few weeks ago, the PUC airport was the site of one of several heliports around the Napa Valley. Starting out at first light, helicopters would remain in the sky until sunset, dropping thousands of gallons of water on the raging flames. The Angwin heliport saw 21 choppers at its peak.
Helicopters are classified by weight and hauling capability and make up three categories that serve various purposes during a firefight. “Smalls” are in charge of scouting and relaying information to “mediums” and “heavies”. Each category of helicopter was stationed at PUC’s airfield during the course of the fire. While the smalls continued updating the others, the mediums strapped 300-gallon, neon orange, collapsible buckets to their underbellies and lowered them into any available water source. The pond in the Back 40 was one such source, but one pilot mentioned he had found a convenient body of water closer to the fires and refilled there.
Most of the helicopters on the landing strip were mediums, one of which had belonged to President Richard Nixon, but the heavies utilized pumps instead of buckets. One of these heavies, a converted military helicopter that had seen time in Vietnam, filled a 2,800-gallon tank that emptied in three seconds when dropping its contents.
CalFire ran the operations at the heliport. Multiple helicopter companies lent aircraft to this endeavor and a motley group of choppers embarked each morning, at sunrise, to resume their day’s work. J.R. Rogers, the current fire chief of the Volunteer Fire Department in Angwin, mentioned that helicopters from this heliport had a hand in fighting the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires.
Thank you, pilots, crews and CalFire for your service and dedication. We appreciate and are continually grateful for your efforts during and after the fire.