Ag aviators seek expanded role in fighting fires

Suppose California had a squadron of agricultural-aviation planes that could scramble to assist with firefighting efforts at a moment’s notice.

Rob Scherzinger, who chairs the California Agricultural Aviation Association, doesn’t need to imagine. As a record wildfire season ravaged California, he said several dozen such pilots and aircraft sat idle.

“While California was burning, there was 37 air tankers sitting on the ground, carded and ready to go, that could have been used,” Scherzinger said.

Cal Fire rarely calls on single-engine air tankers to fight fires, and Scherzinger said agricultural pilots could help.

Single-engine air tankers, or SEATS for short, are the same type of planes as those commonly seen applying seeds, fertilizer or crop-protection materials to fields.

Issac Sanchez, a Cal Fire battalion chief and spokesman, said there is no ban in place on single-engine aircraft fighting fires. Decisions as to what planes to call in are made by supervisors on the front line, he added.

“If the incident commander or the air tactical group supervisor puts a request in or has a need for an aircraft, based off of what his fire is doing or where they expect their fire to be, they place a resource order for a specific aircraft type. In this case, they would have to specifically request a SEAT in order to have them show up on their incidents,” Sanchez said.

Cal Fire incident commanders will typically order twin-engine S-2T air tankers, he said, because “those resources are readily available and they meet the needs of the incident at that given moment.” The planes have one pilot and can carry 1,200 gallons of retardant, according to Cal Fire figures.

“Generally speaking,” he added, “any resource is ordered based off of availability and, of course, the need of the incident.”

Mike Schoenau, who operates an agricultural-aviation services company in Tulare County, said single-engine air tankers are in service elsewhere in the West—”all the neighboring states,” he said, as well as Alaska, Colorado, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Texas. In fact, Scherzinger and Schoenau said, they can be called on to fight fires on U.S. Forest Service land in California.

Read more on this at California Ag Alert

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